Nationals prospect Mason Denaburg grateful to be pitching, and smiling, again

Nats' Denaburg grateful to be pitching, and smiling, again originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

FREDERICKSBURG, Va.— When Mason Denaburg needs a reminder to smile, all he has to do is look down at his glove.

The 23-year-old Nationals pitching prospect has endured a difficult first four years as a professional baseball player. Since being selected 27th overall in the 2018 MLB Draft, Denaburg has undergone surgeries on both his shoulder and elbow. When he made his season debut May 25 for Single-A Fredericksburg, it had been 1,027 days since his last minor-league start.

Denaburg’s rehab process wasn’t easy to smile through.

“At first, I was kind of feeling sorry for myself,” Denaburg said. “Once I had my Tommy John [surgery], I had time to reflect on myself and what I really wanted out of this. I think it was the best thing to ever happen to me in a way. I just got a chance to get my body in good shape, get my arm in good shape and give it a run again.”

As he worked on shifting his mindset, Denaburg’s mind kept going back to something his father used to say, “If you’re not having fun doing something, then why are you doing it?” So when he bought a new glove last year, he got the word “Smile” embroidered over his thumb to help him stay relaxed on the mound.

Finally pitching again, Denaburg has been able to get back to refining the repertoire the Nationals saw so much promise in when they signed him for $3 million out of high school. He’s posted a 4.17 ERA with 36 strikeouts and 22 walks over 12 starts this season, never going deeper than four innings or throwing more than 59 pitches in an outing.

“It’s his first year coming off Tommy John so he’s got an innings cap,” Fredericksburg manager Jake Lowery said. “He’s got a pitch count per inning, per start. Once he got that three-inning threshold and he could go to four…it’s been good. But it’s been good for him to work every inning, work different situations.”

Denaburg has been most pleased with the progress of his changeup, a pitch he started throwing more at first because the pain in his elbow was preventing him from using his go-to offspeed pitch in the slider. His fastball sits in the upper 90s and he feels like he’s commanding the pitch well. The slider is “just kind of what it always was.”

He’s no longer near the top of the Nationals’ prospect rankings — MLB Pipeline and Baseball America both left him off their organizational top 30s entirely — but reaching his full potential is something Denaburg understands can’t happen in a day. All he can do right now is smile as he builds up his arm to get through a full season next year.

“Honestly, I’d just say [go] deep into games, continue to get better with my command of all my pitches and hopefully have another healthy year,” Denaburg said of his goals for 2023. “This has been so fun for me just to come out here. I’m just thankful to be here every day.”

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