Eric Nolte Makes Noteworthy Debut for Padres : Up From Double-A, Rookie Gets Some Help in Beating Astros, 6-0
Padre pitcher Eric Nolte left the Astrodome field after the seventh inning Saturday and high-fived Manager Larry Bowa.
In the chest.
Recounted Bowa: “I told him, ‘That’s it, big guy, you’re done for the night, great job.’ He got all excited, gave high-fives to everybody, then turned and started beating on my chest.”
“I did?” said Nolte, pausing. “Oh yeah. I remember. Larry smacked me in the chest first.”
It was hard to tell who was more excited Saturday, the kid or the boss or the Fates. In seven innings, Nolte traveled from the minor leagues to a minor miracle, allowing the Astros no runs on just five hits with seven strikeouts in winning his major league debut, 6-0.
With a split-finger fastball and good curve and changeup--nothing really hard--this was even a better outing than his last one. That was against Arkansas at Wichita, Kan., in a place called Lawrence-Dumont Stadium for the Double-A Wichita Pilots.
In a surprising move Wednesday night, Nolte skipped the Triple-A step and was summoned to the big leagues to replace Andy Hawkins, who has a sore shoulder.
“How would you feel?” he said when he arrived at the Padres’ clubhouse in the Astrodome Friday night and learned that he would immediately join the starting rotation. “I can’t believe it.”
When the 6-foot 3-inch, 200-pound blond threw on the sidelines Friday, his new teammates joked about the contorted, pained expression on his face when he released the ball. It was if they couldn’t believe it, either.
By his third batter Saturday, nobody could believe it. Nolte walked lead-off hitter Billy Hatcher. He walked Gerald Young. He went to 3-and-0 on Bill Doran. Of his first 11 pitches, 10 had been balls.
Most of the 25,081 stood and jeered. Nolte stood and shook.
“I was intimidated,” he said. “I said, ‘Oh, yeah, this is going to be a long night for me.’ ”
From behind him came second baseman Tim Flannery, who yelled something in his ear and patted him on the rear. One strike later, Nolte came right at Doran with a fastball, which Doran hit to center field. Stanley Jefferson made a leaping catch to start a double play.
Nolte retired the next seven hitters, four on strikeouts. “Tim just told me, ‘In this game, it’s either the outhouse or castle. There’s no in-between. Just throw the ball,’ ” Nolte said. “So I did. I guess tonight turned out to be, what, a mobile home?”
Bowa, whose club matched its longest road win streak of the year with three straight, had a different description.
“I think this was our best-played game, from the first to the last inning, all year,” he said. “I actually think we turned it up a notch tonight, all because of the kid from Double-A. They all wanted to see him do good.”
In turn, Nolte spent the night congratulating his fielders after routine plays--nearly strangling Jefferson after his great first-inning catch--and ended it by doing a cheer for Bowa on the mound.
With two out in the seventh, and with his elbow stiffening as it often does at that time, Nolte allowed back-to-back singles to Kevin Bass and Ken Caminiti. Bowa made his first visit to the mound. From the stands, it looked as if they were screaming at each other. They were.
Said Bowa: “I said, ‘C’mon, you can get this hitter (Robbie Wine).’ All of a sudden he started yelling, ‘Yeah, I can get ‘em, I can get ‘em, I can get ‘em.’ ”
Said Nolte: “Everyone started laughing. I guess I sounded funny.”
He retired Wine on a groundout and then ran to the dugout and attacked his teammates as he he attacked the hitter.
“I can’t believe he was hitting Bowa,” pitcher Ed Whitson said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The rest of the team obviously had not, either. Benito Santiago hit his ninth homer, doubled, and drove in three runs. In his last 12 at-bats, Santiago has eight hits and six RBIs, improving his average to .281. The Padre defense turned three double plays, including the key one in the first. Jefferson leaped and caught Doran’s fly about three feet from the wall. Shortstop Garry Templeton took the relay, turned and threw to first to catch a straying Young.
“When Doran hit that ball to Jefferson, I thought he crushed it,” Nolte said. “I turned around and thought, ‘Welcome to the major leagues.’ ”
Welcome, indeed. Nolte is a former UCLA pitcher--not a star, just an arm--who was picked in the sixth round of the June 1985 draft. Because of elbow surgery early in his college career, scouts were cautious.
He spent 1985 with Spokane in the rookie Northwest League, then last season with Charleston, S.C., in Class A. He began this season with the Padres’ higher Class-A team in Reno, but faltered there at 3-4 with a 4.36 ERA. He was thrown into an exhibition game between the Padres and Las Vegas on May 21, pitching for the Padres, and allowed no runs in two innings.
It was the only taste of the big leagues he needed. He was moved to Wichita, where he was 4-2 with a 2.88 ERA in 10 games before Wednesday.
On Wednesday, things really became weird. Fifteen minutes before Nolte learned of his promotion that night, he was doing a radio call-in show at Wichita’s Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
Pilot Manager Steve Smith, who had already been told to inform Nolte of the recall, phoned him from the clubhouse and disguised his voice.
“I’m a big fan of yours and I’m wondering, how long before you reach the big leagues?” he asked Nolte.
“Oh,” said a surprised Nolte, as if the question had never crossed his mind. “About two years, I guess.”
After the show, Smith and pitching coach Steve Luebber called Nolte into the corner of the dugout.
“That call about the big leagues, that was me, it was a practical joke,” Smith said.
“That’s cool,” said Nolte.
“But really,” Luebber said. “How long do you think it will take?”
“Like I said,” replied Nolte. “Two years.”
“How about tomorrow?” Smith said.
“Save it,” said Nolte. “That’s not funny.”
“No, it’s not,” Smith said. “It’s true.”
They walked in to the clubhouse, turned off the radio and informed the team members. The place erupted in cheers and, you guessed it, high-fives. Nolte celebrated with his teammates until 3 a.m.
“They even stopped the music once and announced my name and where I was going,” he said. “It was something.”
Indeed it was.
Disabled pitcher Storm Davis looked and felt good while pitching on the sideline Friday, and will throw again Tuesday in Atlanta in what is hoped to be his last workout before going to a minor league club for a rehabilitation start. Davis, out since June 29 with torn cartilage in the left rib area, hopes to be back for a start in the Padres’ next homestand, Aug. 7-16.
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.