New father Arnesen holds fast to his dream
Pitching well amid turbulent year, Nats prospect aims for Majors
HARRISBURG, Pa. -- As Erik Arnesen finished his postgame dinner of pasta and chicken at a riverside café with his 4-month-old son nestled on his lap on Saturday night, little Arik awoke abruptly from a deep sleep and started peering suspiciously around the restaurant with eyes wide as saucers.
Erik said laughing, "That's my favorite face he makes." His wife, Heidi, added with a grin: "It must be crazy to go to sleep all the time in one place and wake up somewhere else."
In a way, Arik's father knows the feeling.
Arnesen, a right-hander in the Nationals' system, has bounced around quite a bit in the past calendar year and has responded with the finest season of his professional career, including the Eastern League Pitcher of the Week Award he received on Monday.
But that's no surprise: Arnesen, who was taken by the Nationals in the 17th round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft out of tiny Grove City College north of Pittsburgh, has long had to fight the odds while chasing his Major League dream.
"My senior year, I sent out letters to just about every baseball team saying, 'Here I am. Come check me out. I want to play,'" Arnesen said. "I got some looks, but the best I heard from anybody is, 'You know, we're not sure we're going to take you in the Draft, but we'll talk to you afterwards.'
"So I wasn't even really following the Draft, and I got a phone call from the Washington Nationals saying, 'Hey, we just took you in the 17th round.' I was like, 'Oh, that's great -- OK!'"
Arnesen gradually ascended through the Nationals' system, culminating with a solid half-season for Triple-A Syracuse in 2010. Arnesen honed his abilities in Puerto Rico during the winter with designs on taking the next step to the Major Leagues, but was bumped back to Double-A Harrisburg -- in a relief role -- to start '11.
"I was steadily moving my way up the organization until this year," Arnesen said. "This was the first year I've been moved back down a level. ... I can't let that get to me, and I just have to go out there and do my thing."
Arnesen has bounced back and forth between starting and relieving, between Harrisburg and Syracuse -- never losing his aplomb while dealing with challenging situations. Arnesen has earned a reputation for doing whatever is needed of him, including making a spot start for Syracuse in April despite having pitched exclusively in relief to that point.
"I got through five [innings]." Arnesen said with a smile. "It's tough to go from relieving right to starting, but it's just kind of been how this season's gone for me.
"When I get out there, all I'm trying to do is give it everything I've got and walk away with a 'W.'"
Adding to Arnesen's crazy year -- in a good way -- he made a 2 1/2-day dash from Florida to New Jersey right before the season began to witness the birth of his first child. A month later, the new father proudly sat with Arik and watched Heidi graduate with honors from Rutgers Law School. Heidi and Arik make the trip from their home in New Jersey to Harrisburg at every opportunity.
"I mean, it's incredible," Arnesen said, watching Heidi rock Arik back to sleep. "He's a little 20-pound ball of nothing, and every time I look at him, I smile. He just cracks me up."
In his latest start on Sunday, with Heidi and Arik cheering him on, Arnesen struck out a season-high 10 batters and allowed one unearned run in seven innings in a 4-2 victory over Trenton that put the Senators alone in first place.
Arnesen is 8-3 for Harrisburg, ranks third in the Eastern League with a 2.36 ERA and is second with a 1.07 WHIP. After adding a split-finger fastball to a repertoire that includes a low-90s fastball, Arnesen has compiled a 115-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 124 1/3 innings between Harrisburg and Syracuse. In the Eastern League All-Star Game, he struck out all three batters he faced.
|"I've got my wife and my kid here behind me, and they've just always supported me through this. It'd be great to be able to play a sport that I love playing to support them."|
|-- Erik Arnesen|
"As long as you continue to pitch well, you keep showing you can get guys out and you have a knack for winning, at some point, that can't be ignored," Senators manager Tony Beasley said of Arnesen.
Yet despite his excellent season, the call Arnesen has been working so hard to receive hasn't arrived. Arnesen is 27 years old, hardly a fresh face in the game. But Ryan Vogelsong became an All-Star out of nowhere at 34. And given that Arnesen possesses versatility, durability, a positive clubhouse presence and an ability to miss bats, it seems he'd be an asset at the very least as a long man.
"I'd have to think that the organization feels very strongly about him and the way he's able to adjust the way he does," Beasley said. "And he never complains, he just does his job, he's very professional. For me, a guy like him, at some point, if he can keep doing what he's doing, he'll get an opportunity."
Arnesen is well aware that baseball is a business, and he's quite familiar with the phrase "numbers game." He knows the deck has been stacked against him from the beginning; he obviously wasn't drafted with any fanfare, and he received no enormous signing bonus. He's played with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper -- both of whom he very much likes personally -- and knows his situation is far different from theirs.
But Arnesen has a couple of things in his favor: an amazingly positive attitude and a strong desire to improve. And if anything, the arrival of his first child has sharpened his focus.
"When it was just Heidi and I, we were just pursuing our dreams, and just chasing after it with everything I've got," Arnesen said. "She just graduated from law school, and just took the bar and is starting work here pretty soon. And I've been playing ball as a pro here for a few years, but having a kid, it just changes you a little bit, you know?
"Like, I'm not just chasing a dream, I've got to reach it at this point. And if I don't, I'm going to have to find something else."
If it does come to that, Arnesen has his business degree from Grove City. He's done some coaching in the past and would like to continue when he's done playing. Not to mention, Arnesen is very articulate and diligently studies the sport; one could picture him as a commentator, if that's the route he wants to go.
But he hasn't given up his dream of jogging out to a big league mound with Heidi and Arik in the stands.
"I mean, it'd be huge," Arnesen said. "I've got my wife and my kid here behind me, and they've just always supported me through this.
"It'd be great to be able to play a sport that I love playing to support them."
If one truly believes that good things happen to good people, then at some point, Erik Arnesen will live the moment he's worked so hard to create.
Bryan Horowitz is an editorial producer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.