Friday, April 23, 2010

Atilano's dream realized

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Luis Atilano couldn't have scripted a better big-league debut.
Luis Atilano was 6 the first time Ivan Rodriguez squatted behind the plate in a big-league game. It would be a few more years before Atilano became a Pudge fan, but like every other kid growing up in Puerto Rico, it was bound to happen.

Flash-forward 19 years and 1,500 miles north, where on a gorgeous April evening in the District, Atilano made his major-league debut with none other than Rodriguez as his batterymate. That the right-hander, stuck in the minor leagues for the last seven years, tossed six innings of one-run ball to lead the Nationals to a 5-1 victory over the Dodgers only added to the moment.

"It's crazy. It's been my dreams," Atilano said. "After seven years, I made it finally. I pitched to Pudge Rodriguez, hopefully a Hall of Famer. I can't ask for nothing better than that."

The Nats couldn't have asked for anything better out of a rookie pitcher making his debut against the majors' best-hitting club. Even without Manny Ramirez -- who was placed on the DL today with a strained calf -- the Dodgers boasted a formidable lineup that has averaged more than six runs per game this season.

So when Atilano carved this way through Los Angeles' batters with ease, scattering five hits over six innings, it felt like a shot in the arm for a Nationals team desperately seeking some consistency from its up-and-down rotation.

"You bring a guy up, he pitches like that, it's a great night for him, something he'll never forget," manager Jim Riggleman said. "We needed a good performance from a young starter coming up, and we got it. It was beautiful."

Even close observers of the Nationals' farm system paid little attention to Atilano over the years. A sinkerball control specialist who was acquired by Jim Bowden in 2006 for Daryle Ward -- while still recovering from Tommy John surgery -- the right-hander was a regular presence in big-league camp the last few springs but never a real factor.

Atilano was the guy who would pitch the ninth inning of a Grapefruit League game. Or worse, the guy they'd bring along on road trips to serve as the emergency pitcher in case the game went extra innings. He survived right to end of camp this spring and pitched in seven games, but only once was Rodriguez behind the plate. Usually, by the time Atilano entered, Pudge had long since showered and left the premises.

All along, though, Rodriguez knew Atilano was capable of succeeding. The catcher had been following his young countryman's progress, and when the two met this afternoon to discuss a gameplan for the Dodgers, they were on the same page from the start.

"The first thing a pitcher needs: a guy that has some experience behind the plate," Rodriguez said. "Basically he just did what we talked about earlier today in the meeting. Relax and just make sure he follows me and pitches what I wanted."

Atilano did just that. Mixing in his sinker with an assortment of offspeed stuff, he was in total control from the time he stepped on the mound.

He knew all along he was pitching to his hero, but he tried to block that out and treat this just like any old minor-league game. His composure under the bright lights did not go unnoticed.

"He may have been feeling [nervous], but he certainly didn't show it," Riggleman said.

So, was Atilano nervous at all?

"First pitch," he admitted. "After that, everything goes normal."

Perhaps the only times Atilano looked fazed were in his postgame interviews. While being interviewed on MASN on the field, he tried to give good answers, all the while knowing he was going to get a shaving cream pie in the face. (Turns out he got two: one from John Lannan, one from Livan Hernandez.)

Then, in his second go-around with reporters inside the clubhouse, Atilano seemed to have a hard time putting into words what exactly this all meant to him and his family. Two baseballs sat in his locker: one representing his first big-league pitch, one representing his first big-league win. Those will be sent to Puerto Rico, to his parents, who were watching tonight's game on TV with other family members. His cellphone had already been buzzing with text messages congratulating him on this achievement.

And when he began to speak about the significance of sharing this moment with perhaps the greatest catcher in baseball history and certainly the most-famous one ever to come out of Puerto Rico, Atilano briefly had to compose himself and not shed a tear.

"It's huge to me, to pitch in the big leagues," he said. "And to pitch to Pudge? It's just incredible. And win the ballgame? It's even better."


Jenn Jenson said...

I love games like today, with stories like this. Congratulations to Luis, who also made a bunch of strangers happy today because we were able to see his dream come true.

Same thing five days from now, please.

Andrew said...

Jenn - Very well said! Congrats to the Atilano family. I enjoyed it, especially the shaving creme pie after the game, and also happy for Adam Dunn who really really needed a night like this.

test said...

Congrats to Luis! I think we all hope this was the first in a long line of great games.

dale said...

Fabulous game from Atilano. I loved the way he actually barely missed Pudge's target at all. Superb control from a rookie. This could easily have been a shutout if not for some sloppy fielding from Morgan.

Now compare this game to what would have been a start from Marquis. Day and night difference. Perhaps a message is being sent throughout the organization that you can not come up here and gut out an injury if it costs your team. I do look forward to the return of a HEALTHY Marquis, Mock, Detwiler, Wang, Zimmermann and Zimmerman. Amazingly we are actually deep enough now to get by without these players being in the lineup. That alone shows progress.

natsfan1a said...

Even if he was nervous on the first pitch, he threw a strike. I liked Atilano's poise and his tendency to get ahead in the count. They didn't give him the strikeout ball as well?

Nice to see Dunn's dingers, too (and the Elvis wig, natch).

Gus said...

What I liked:

1) Throwing Strikes and getting ahead of batters from the get go...not being scared.

2) Battling at the Plate - he fouled off a number of pitches and even when he struck out on breaker in dirt, he ran to first rather than get tagged out.

3) Keeping his head in the game despite that ugly play by Nyjer on Belliards pop up double. He didn't have a melt down as we have seen with other pitchers in similar situations last year.

4) Hustling to cover first on ground out to Dunn (who by the way, is really playing more than adequate first base so far).....he took off like a bullet and was there in time. Just needs to work on finding the bag with his foot....although, watching from TV, it looked as if his foot was touching side of bag.

5) Coming to Nat's rotation out of the blue and allowing me to imagine he could actually be a serviceable starter this year, right now, without having to depend on the wounded wings in syracuse.

6) Recognizing the moment and being genuine and emotional in his post game responses. More simply - Authentic.

Let's hope he repeats this feat again and again this year.

D'Gourds said...

What impressed me the most about this kid was the nasty tailing, sinking movement of his two seamer! He just threw it to the middle of the plate and let the movement do the work. He made terrific hitters look like minor leaguers. Let's hope he can do this on a consistent basis and he can adapt when the rest of MLB inevitably adapts to him.
I'm genuinely excited about the Nats future. This is great!

bumsfan4 said...

Hey Mark: Great stuff, but the audio I got was not Atilano. Sounded like audio from the Jimenez game.

K.D. said...

I liked seeing a talented young pitcher trust an experienced catcher and not over think anything. Just trust his own stuff and let Pudge read the batters. It was nice to see Dunn do what he is supposed to do, but I have been happy with watching his improving defense.

Suicide Squeeze said...

I wonder if Pudge did his best Crash Davis impression during the pre-game meeting with Atilano: "Don't think. It can only hurt the ball club."

Way to just trust your gut and your catcher, kid. Welcome to the Show!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Z. - This is gettng old, but I gotta say it again: another very nicely written piece. Thank you very much. I so enjoy reading your pieces.

Anonymous said...

Great piece, Mark. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Mark, What a great story! I hope this kid can stick around. Go Nats!

NatBisquit said...

It's hard not to want to taunt the critics of the Ivan ROdriguez signing when you read things like this. For six million over two years getting a leader who so many others want to play with and who to date has hit better than most believed he could. Even if his hitting regresses to norm, that was a good signing. It's not just PR, other players really do seem to want to play with him, be mentored by him, and respect him.

Great moment for Atliano in particular.

Anonymous said...

This is a great story.

But Mark--"countrymate"?

Slidell said...

It gives me a comfortable feeling when someone is out there throwing first-pitch strikes. Last night, the Kid was doing that with consistency.

Mark Zuckerman said...

Anon 10:34 -- You know, I knew that sounded wrong when I typed it last night. I should have known it was "countryman." Just fixed it, thanks.

Anonymous said...

"countrymate"? Paesani or relatives (on a small island dotted with many small villages that is certainly always a possibility. ;) Sounds good to me.

Amazing game for Atilano. Desperately needed in the aftermath of the disappointment over Marquis.

Let's hope Livan's tutelage continues this afternoon with Stammen.

Bote Man said...

Better writing here than can be had from a certain baseball writer at the leading paper in the District.

I just hope your next several stories after an Atilano start celebrate his victories, as well.

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