Some Nationals fans who are Generation X and millennials might not understand the cultural reference of calling the team’s latest pitching phenom “Cool Hand Luke.”
Nearly 50 years have elapsed since Paul Newman starred in the classic prison drama about a convict who refuses to conform. But Lucas “Luke” Jackson remains one of the most assured and composed characters that Hollywood ever produced.
It’s far too early to make long-term predictions about Lucas Giolito, the Nats’ rookie pitcher who made his major-league debut Tuesday. However, based on everything we’ve seen and heard to this point – including four rain-shortened innings in which he allowed one hit and zero runs against the New York Mets – Giolito is ready-made for the nickname.
“The thing that impressed me most was that I saw him so relaxed,” catcher Wilson Ramos told reporters. “At no moment did I sense that he was feeling pressure in any way. He was locating his pitches very well and attacking the zone. And then I was very surprised to see how relaxed his composure was out on the mound.”
He had plenty of time to relax during a 55-minute rain delay prior to his first pitch. But the wait could’ve worked against him, too, allowing nerves to build and anxiousness to mount. Giolito is widely considered the No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball and he was replacing injured Stephen Strasburg, who captivated MLB and D.C. in his debut six years ago.
Strasburg was the most-ballyhooed pitching prospect ever, arriving as the Nats’ would-be savior. Amazingly, he lived up to the hype in his debut, recording 14 strikeouts and allowing two runs in seven innings against the Pirates. He’s currently 10-0 with a 2.90 ERA this season, armed with a seven-year contract extension to comfort him.
Comparisons are inevitable. The Nats used first-round picks on Strasburg (No. 1) and Giolito (No. 16). Both are tall right-handers with fastballs in the neighborhood of 100 mph. Both are from the west coast. Both have undergone Tommy John surgery.
That’s where the similarities should end. Strasburg, who came up under enormous pressure with irrational expectations, developed a reputation for letting things get to him somewhat. Giolito, who has toiled with far less fanfare, seems like the type where nothing bothers him.
“He’s very poised and confident,” general manager Mike Rizzo told reporters prior to Giolito’s debut. “A guy with great stuff. He works extremely hard in preparation for his starts, physically and game preparation. So I don’t think that he’ll be overwhelmed in the situation. He’s a guy, with his makeup and confidence level, we feel good about.”
Giolito successfully weathered a rough spell in his first five starts with Double-A Harrisburg this season, turning in a horrific 1.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. It’s an understatement to say he was off his game, considering his ratio for 2015 was 3.5.
But he kept his emotions in check, regained control of his pitches and came out of the slump with a four-game stretch that was absolutely dominant – 1.45 ERA with a 4.6 ratio on strikeouts versus walks. He was en route to Triple-A Syracuse before Strasburg’s back strain created an opening in Washington.
“I know Stras got hurt and I’m hoping that he can get better as soon as possible because he’s going to win games for this team,” Giolito told reporters after his no-decision in the Nats’ 5-0 victory. “I obviously want to do the same thing, but it’s up to the higher-up guys, whatever they want is whatever they want and I’m just going to go out and compete whenever I’m given the opportunity.”
Now the question is how many more opportunities he’ll get this season before returning to the minors. Strasburg is eligible to come off the disabled list on Friday, the day after struggling Gio Gonzalez is scheduled to start against Cincinnati.
If Gonzalez continues to scuffle, maybe he could come down with something that requires a stint on the DL. Maybe Joe Ross could use a break to keep his innings under control. Perhaps giving the bullpen a boost is an option for Giolito, who could follow the path of former first-round picks Chris Sale and Adam Wainwright; they earned their keep as big-league relievers before becoming ace starters.
But whether his next outing is another debut (Triple-A), another start at Nationals Park (against Cincinnati on Sunday), or his first appearance out of Washington’s bullpen, one things seems clear:
Giolito’s hand is about as cool as they come.
Regarding that much, there’s been no failure to communicate.