ARLINGTON, Texas -- Mark Grimm couldn’t imagine a better Father’s Day present.
Just six days ago, the 53-year-old was watching his son, Justin, pitch in front of about 7,000 fans at a Double-A park in Frisco, about 42 miles northeast of Arlington. He figured he was heading back home to Bristol, Va., with his wife Tamara after that.
“Then Justin told us he needed to get us tickets for the game on Saturday and that he needed a ride to Arlington right away,” Mark said. “We were shocked.”
On Saturday, Grimm watched his son pitch again, this time with a sellout crowd of 48,288 at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington cheering him on. Among the fans: Texas Rangers CEO Nolan Ryan and former president George W. Bush.
“I’m still in disbelief that we’re here,” Mark said. “It’s amazing.”
Mark and Tamara figured they were more nervous than their son, who managed to look calm and in control despite internal butterflies. Justin admitted that he couldn’t eat before the game because he was excited and nervous and that hearing the crowd pumped him up.
“Once he got through the first inning, I settled down a little bit,” Mark said. “I knew he’d get hit some. Then when we took the lead, I got nervous again knowing he could get his first win.”
Justin Grimm got that win, doing the same things he did last seasons at Class-A Hickory and Myrtle Beach and this season in Frisco. He didn’t issue a walk, showing solid fastball command. He had the Astros’ lineup baffled by what he calls a slurve, which has big, bending movement. And he didn’t get rattled even after Jed Lowrie mashed a 93-mph fastball over the right-field wall in the first inning.
Grimm bounced back right after that with five consecutive strikeouts -- four of them on two-strike swings on that nasty slurve -- and ended up going six innings and allowing three runs on six hits. He had seven strikeouts. But more important than that: He didn’t walk anyone. The only other pitchers since 2000 to have at least seven strikeouts and no walks in his major league debut was Washington’s Stephen Strasburg and Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto.
“I was really happy with it,” Grimm said of his start. “The first couple of pitches, I couldn’t tell you where they were. I was just very excited. I told myself to go out there and make the same pitches. It’s just a game. You’ve just got a little better defense and offense on your side.”
It took some time for that offense to reveal itself, but with Grimm in the dugout following his sixth inning, Texas scored five runs to grab a 5-3 lead and make Grimm a winner. He didn’t look like a rookie for most of the night, though catcher Mike Napoli did have to remind him of a few things. At one point early in the first inning, Napoli trotted out for a visit.
"I was just talking about his slide step,” Napoli said. “He kind of gave us high kick the first time, and I reminded him that he's a base-stealer. Then, he did it really quick. So I was just like 'Give me something in between there and you'll be fine. You don't have to be too quick or too slow.'"
In a bullpen session before the game, pitching coach Mike Maddux asked Grimm to throw some two-seam fastballs, a pitch he didn’t throw often in the minors. Maddux figured Grimm’s delivery would make it a good pitch and Grimm was pleased enough that he threw it a handful of times during his start.
After the game, manager Ron Washington told Grimm he was pleased that the pitcher kept the Rangers in the game, giving the offense time to produce.
“We got him here early so he could be around these guys and I know they’ve been in his ear,” Washington said. “The key is that he doesn’t change anything that he was doing in Double-A. He’s a strike thrower. He threw strikes. Let him put the ball in play with that defense behind you.
“The first inning, I’m certain he had some butterflies and jitters, gave up the home run. But he stayed poised, kept pounding the strike zone, making the pitches that Mike asked him to make. Once again, our minor league directors and scouts and everyone that recommended him were right. They said he could come up here and handle the job and he did.”
Grimm managed to at least make the Rangers ponder whether to leave him in the rotation for now. One option would be to leave him in the spot vacated by Derek Holland and move Scott Feldman to the bullpen once Roy Oswalt is activated. But there’s time to make those decisions.
“He performed,” Washington said. “So because he performed, he’s in consideration.”
Grimm’s mother and father weren’t the only two folks watching nervously as Grimm toed the rubber. Ryan Coe, the Rangers scout that evaluated Grimm and sold the club on picking him in the fifth round of the 2010 draft, was proud that Grimm stayed even-keeled and stuck to his gameplan.
Coe said he saw a pitcher two years ago that was gifted, but needed work.
“He had the breaking ball you saw tonight, but it was not consistent,” Coe said. “As a scout, you look for that raw material and the pitching coordinators have done a fine job of just fine-tuning this kid to where he is now.”
Grimm was quick to point out some of those folks, which included Brad Holman, Jeff Andrews and Danny Clark, among others.
Coe said Grimm went from a pitcher who went over his head in the windup and was too quick to the plate to one that pitches more downhill with a repeatable, calm delivery.
Coe and Grimm’s parents both said work ethic was his best attribute and even after the start, Grimm was already analyzing things he could do to get better.
“I could throw some more changeups and work on things,” Grimm said. “But I’m happy. I just want to keep it going from here.”
Thanks to Saturday’s start, he might delay his return trip to Frisco for a little while longer.