ST. PETERSBURG — Now, is not the time to be picky. Not with a major-league uniform on his back, and the cost of that accomplishment still fresh in his mind.
If he were inclined, Nate Pearson could find fault in his role with the Blue Jays. He has been converted into a multi-inning reliever after looking like a dominant starter early in his pro career. And he is way behind schedule after that dazzling 2020 debut trading shutout innings with Max Scherzer.
But if your story includes injuries, illness and setbacks, then it better have a role for perspective, too. And Pearson has plenty of that, even if it was sometimes acquired begrudgingly.
“I’m not going to complain about being up here, or being in the big leagues,” Pearson said in the visiting clubhouse at Tropicana Field. “I mean, in a perfect world, things could have gone better …”
Much could have gone better for Pearson. Starting with his high school career at Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High near Spring Hill where he missed his junior season after elbow surgery.
Or the back injury that delayed his second pro season and the broken forearm off a line drive that wiped out the rest of it. Or the groin injuries, the sports hernia, the lat strain or the bout of mononucleosis.
In between it all, Pearson was voted the No. 1 prospect in the Triple-A Eastern League and was named the game’s No. 2 pitching prospect by Baseball America in 2020.
He was regularly hitting 100 mph on radar guns, and he made headlines in 2018 when he threw a 103-mph fastball in the Arizona Fall League that a kid named Pete Alonso hit out of the park.
So if it’s difficult for fans and front office execs to reconcile those type of expectations with a pitcher who had trouble staying on the mound between his 24th and 26th birthdays, imagine the emotional burden for the player himself.
“It was kind of rough there for a while, a lot of ups and downs,” Pearson said.
Were there dark moments?
Now that he’s back and healthy again, Pearson isn’t inclined to delve too deeply into his medical chart or his psyche. But it seems clear that, somewhere along the way, Pearson shed the baggage of being a can’t-miss prospect and focused on just being a pitcher again. A ballplayer.
Maybe that happened in the Dominican Republic, where he spent last winter playing for Tigres del Licey to make up for all the time he had missed the previous two summers. He didn’t give up a run in 12 innings of work while striking out 16.
Sent back to Triple-A Buffalo after spring training, he was pretty dominant again with 16 strikeouts in 8.1 innings and a 2.16 ERA. Called up in late April for the first time in more than a year, Pearson has reinvented himself in the Toronto bullpen.
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He has thrown 12 innings over nine games with a 1-0 record and a 2.25 ERA. As a reliever, he has been able to keep his average fastball velocity (97.8 mph) a tick higher than his rookie season as a starter (96.4 mph) in 2020, but he is basically the same pitcher.
Which means he still has confidence there is potentially more to be discovered as a starter.
“It just sort of (evolved) this way with all of the injuries and setbacks, and where our starting rotation is right now,” Pearson said. “They’ve signed a lot of guys to big contracts, so they’re going to get all the opportunities, and they deserve it.
“So they just need guys like me in the bullpen to help so that’s what I’m here to do. I’m grateful to have the chance to help a team that can be in the playoffs.”
For the longest time, Nate Pearson was destined for greatness. The scouts said it, the numbers supported it, and he believed it.
And, realistically, there is still plenty of time for him to get there. He is 26, and throwing more strikes than ever. If he hasn’t pitched in many high-leverage situations yet, the opportunities will undoubtedly come.
Now living in Oldsmar, Pearson has family and friends at Tropicana Field for each game of the four-game series. It’s not quite the homecoming he may have once imagined, but it’s another step in the process of getting there.
It’s been almost six years since Toronto drafted him in the first round, and nearly three years since he threw five shutout innings in his big-league debut in Washington.
“This hasn’t gone the way I thought it would go, but I’m thankful for how it’s worked out,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot along the way. A lot about myself, and everything else.”
The aspirations are still there. The talent is, too.
Maybe, all these years later, this is just the start.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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