WASHINGTON — Chris Archer thought he had gotten the emotions and issues out of the way before he took the mound Wednesday for his major-league debut. Actually, it took him an inning, a rough first inning, and an inspirational speech from teammate Carlos Peña to turn in an impressive performance in a 3-2 loss to Washington.
The 23-year-old came out of the Rays clubhouse early before starting his warmups to soak in the atmosphere of the moment. As he looked around Nationals Park, he found his parents, Ron and Donna, sitting in Section 114 behind third base and a group of his closest friends who also drove up from their North Carolina home, hanging out by the bullpen.
Protocol and professionalism be damned, Archer was momentarily overwhelmed, his mind flooded by memories of all the sacrifices and hard work it took for him to get there.
"I shed a couple tears," Archer said. "There was no reason to hold it in. The best thing for me to do was to let it out because it was joy. It was not like I was nervous or upset. It was pure excitement and happiness."
He felt good at that point. His bullpen session went well, he fist-bumped manager Joe Maddon on the way out of the dugout and he got to the mound — and suddenly nothing was going right.
Three straight balls to start, then a double and a single led to a run, some shaky defense behind him leading to two unearned runs, a wild pitch, then a two-out hit, Nats manager Davey Johnson noting he looked "awful nervous." After a 31-pitch mess, in which Archer had little command or control, he was down 3-0, a gap the Rays (38-30) wouldn't be able to close against Washington ace Stephen Strasburg.
But that's where Peña, the veteran first baseman, stepped in.
"Mentally, I kind of slipped in the first," Archer said. "And then Carlos Peña came up to me between innings and he's like, 'Look, this battle isn't against the Washington Nationals, it's against yourself. And tonight, you need to conquer yourself.'
"And once I started to take that mentality, it started to work. I stopped pitching against the other team, and I started pitching for myself. Same game, different stage. Maybe it did overwhelm me a little bit in the first. But after that talk with Peña, I pitched pretty well."
Pretty well? Archer allowed only a walk over the next five innings, striking out six, using only 51 pitches and working well with catcher Jose Molina. He showed exactly why he was a centerpiece of the January 2011 trade with the Cubs for Matt Garza, whose old No. 22 was on his back.
"He's a great pitcher; he's got good stuff," Nats outfielder Bryce Harper said. "He's pretty laid back. And he's laid back while throwing 96 mph. That's pretty damn good."