This is where every good baseball story starts. Think of it as the game’s big bang theory. A pitcher with a ball in his hand, and a hitter with glory in his head. Everything else emanates from there.
When you break it down like that, Nate Pearson and his fastball just might be the hottest tale in the game. A kid from north Pinellas County with four days of big-league baseball under his belt and years of promise stretched out before him.
And don’t feel bad if you’re arriving late to Pearson’s story because the pros did, too. He went undrafted out of Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School near Spring Hill in 2015, and didn’t become a prominent prospect until he showed up at a junior college two years later with a 100-mph fastball.
By the time he was drafted by the Blue Jays, the legend had slowly begun to spread. He went to the Arizona Fall League in 2018, and lit the radar guns at 103 mph in a minor-league all-star game that was televised nationally but only witnessed by hardball fanatics.
And really, that’s what made Wednesday night so special. Pearson, 23, was on the big stage at last. Hours before he took the mound against the World Series champion Washington Nationals, he was handed a major-league contract and sent his parents a text: “No. 24 is activated. Officially a big leaguer.”
Then he went out and matched three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer pitch-for-pitch. Pearson’s final line: five innings, two hits, no runs and infinite possibilities. His fastball topped out at 99 mph that night, which comically sounds like a letdown.
Do you have any idea how quickly a 100-mph pitch reaches a batter? Between 375 and 400 milliseconds, which is less than half a second. Or, if you need a visual, comparable to the blink of an eye.
Nate Pearson’s story is kind of like that. He went from practically nowhere to national prominence in the blink of an eye. But while this story starts with his fastball. it is not the only pitch you need to be aware of.
Of the 75 pitches he threw in his big league debut, Pearson used only two curveballs. He caught Andrew Stevenson looking at one in the fourth and got Trea Turner to swing-and-miss at a 76-mph curve in the fifth.
By its nature, the curveball is meant to befuddle. Hence, the phrase: Life threw you a curveball. Which is where we find Nate Pearson around 2014.
He was already a big kid as a high school sophomore, maybe a hair above or below 6 feet. Then he began to grow. Too quickly, as it turned out. He sprouted another 6 inches in six months or so, and the growth plates in his bones were struggling to keep pace. With as much baseball as he was playing, Pearson developed a stress fracture in his pitching elbow.
He had a couple of options. He could rest and wait for it to heal, but there was a chance it wouldn’t mend properly. So Pearson opted to have a screw put in by Tampa Bay Rays team physician Dr. Koco Eaton, along with an electronic stimulator to promote bone growth.
“That was a hard time for him,” said his father, Dave. “He was wondering if this was really the end.”
Thankfully, the surgery was perfect, although Pearson missed his junior season of high school ball. And that’s essentially when college coaches are making their scholarship offers. So even though he went 9-1 with a 0.91 ERA and helped lead Bishop McLaughlin to the state tournament as a senior, a lot of the colleges had already moved on with other plans. His best shot was an offer from Florida International in Miami.
“His first start of his senior year, he was throwing 85-86 mph, maybe topping out at 88 at a preseason game at Sunlake,” said his high school coach, Jeff Swymer. “By the end of the year, he was a 92-93 type arm. Then he goes to college and the rest is history.”
If the curve is splashy, the changeup is more subtle. Pearson threw only three against the Nationals, all in his final two innings, all around 88 mph. It’s designed to mess with your timing.
Which is kind of a metaphor for Pearson’s college career. FIU was in transition when he arrived, and he ended up working with three different pitching coaches in his freshman season. He wasn’t necessarily unhappy, but didn’t think he would develop the way he wanted.
Instead of transferring to another Division I-A school — which punitively required sitting out a season — Pearson went the junior college route. His fastball was now approaching 100 mph and he wanted a place where he could work on his off-speed pitches. He chose College of Central Florida in Ocala, where head coach Marty Smith and pitching coach Zach Bove were involved in high-tech theories of workouts and spin rates.
One impressive season later, Pearson was attracting attention from every big league team. At the time, Matt Bishoff was a Blue Jays scout based in the Tampa Bay area. He’d seen Pearson pitch in high school and had taken the time to visit the family home and meet Nate’s dad Dave and mother Elaine and stayed in touch over the years.
Prior to the 2017 draft, Pearson scheduled a session for scouts to see him at Detroit’s spring training stadium in Lakeland. A week before that, Bishoff got a private invitation to watch a workout in Tampa. Bishoff immediately saw that Pearson had taken a huge step forward with his breaking pitches. He left the workout. got on the phone and implored Toronto’s top talent evaluators to attend the showcase in Lakeland.
“You can ask any team that watched that bullpen session, it was one of the most jaw-dropping things ever,” Bishoff said. “He was throwing 98-102, his slider was really good, his curve was really good, he was throwing strikes. You had 100 scouts watching, and it was dead quiet.”
It’s show time, what are you going to do? You can plan all you want, but flexibility is a must. For Pearson, on the night of his MLB debut, that meant recognizing the slider was his best pitch. Throwing it in the mid-80s, nine of his 15 outs were recorded on the slider.
His parents could relate. A year ago, they were imploring family and friends to make sure their passports were in order so they could catch Nate’s big league debut if it was in Canada. With the coronavirus forcing the Blue Jays out of Toronto — and making them the home team in Washington’s own ballpark without fans in the bleachers — Dave and Elaine decided to drive from their Oldsmar home with Nate’s older sister and his girlfriend.
They got to spend a little time with Nate on Tuesday night, then filmed him stepping on the team bus outside of his hotel early Wednesday afternoon. All was well, except for one not-so-insignificant detail: Their hotel did not carry the channel the game was being broadcast on.
Nate’s agent did a quick audible and found a restaurant — Proper 21, which is about three blocks from the White House — that would put the Pearson crew in a room in the back with big screen TVs. When Toronto cable station Sportsnet asked for a picture of the family to put on the game broadcast, the Proper 21 waiter offered to videotape them watching the game. It was far from the way they once envisioned this moment, but it was memorable nonetheless.
“When Nate got back to the hotel room, we all just kind of broke down. Nate was tearing up, it was very emotional,” his mother said. “He held it together all day and when he finally got in a room with his loved ones, he just let it go.”
When he was still a teenager in high school, Pearson told a Tampa Bay Times reporter that for as long as he could remember his goals were to play college baseball, get drafted, reach the majors and make the Hall of Fame.
“You’ve got to think big,” he said.
It all starts with a fastball …