Blue Jays prospect Nate Pearson impresses in AFL debut

Toronto Blue Jays pitching prospect Nate Pearson. (Cliff Welch/Getty Images)

SURPRISE, Ariz. – In the days and weeks that accumulated after suffering his second freak injury of the season, Nate Pearson did all he could to stay engaged while a fracture in his forearm healed. Part of that was going to class, dubbed Baseball 101, in which the 2017 first-rounder and other injured Toronto Blue Jays pitching prospects gathered weekly to watch some ball, looked for things to dissect and discussed them afterwards.

They saw a lot of advanced-A Dunedin games and ventured out to catch the Tampa Bay Rays, where they locked in on the warm-up routines of the starting pitchers. The way Tyler Glasnow – stretched out after his acquisition from the Pittsburgh Pirates, who used the righty as a reliever – got ready, in particular, caught Pearson’s eye.

"It was pretty cool to see that, seeing how he can go from being in the ‘pen to being able to start," said Pearson. "The class was basically to keep us involved, keep us in the game and not let our mental side take over and us get depressed."

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His arm fully healed and his body back in game-shape, the 22-year-old right-hander was the polar opposite of depressed Friday after his Arizona Fall League debut, his first competitive outing since May 7 with Dunedin when a second-inning comebacker fractured his ulna. The 6-6, 245-pound giant threw 3.1 shutout innings, allowing three hits and three walks with four strikeouts, for the Surprise Saguaros in a 4-1 win over the Glendale Desert Dogs, looking every bit the future ace he’s projected to be.

An overwhelming fastball that was consistently 96-97 and got up into triple-digits was complemented by a knee-buckling curveball along with a progressing changeup and slider. In the first inning, for instance, he got ahead of Connor Marabell with consecutive called-strike curveballs before the Cleveland outfield prospect swung through a 100-m.p.h. heater. The next inning, he flipped the sequence on Dodgers outfielder Cody Thomas, using a 99 m.p.h. fastball to get strike two before freezing him with a hook at 79 to end the inning.

"I felt really good with my whole mix," said Pearson. "I was able to flash all my pitches for strikes and I got into a really good groove with my curveball, so I was mainly fastball curveball. I felt pretty good behind it and I was glad to see it all coming together."

The outing was only Pearson’s second this year, as his season debut was delayed by an intercostal strain suffered during a pitchers’ fielding practice, or PFP, drill in spring training. He wasn’t ready to go from that until that fateful May 7 game, in which recorded five outs before the smash that essentially cost him the season.

The Blue Jays assigned him to the AFL prospect showcase loop as a way to make up some of the lost development time and while he said there were no flashbacks of the comebacker, he still experienced "a lot of nerves, if I’m being honest."

"The first time being back in competition like this there are going to be some nerves," he continued. "But once I got in the bullpen and everything started flowing I was able to settle down, get the nerves under control and I was ready to compete. It was awesome.

"The injury is in the past. I don’t dwell on it. It’s always a cool story I tell when guys ask, but other than that it’s not something I think about it. I’m just trying to go out there and compete and get guys out."

Selected 28th overall in 2017 with the compensatory draft pick the Blue Jays received for Cleveland’s signing of Edwin Encarnacion, Pearson did that in a big way during an auspicious pro-ball debut, when he struck out 26 and allowed only two runs in 20 innings total innings.

That performance quickly shot him up various prospect lists and he looked set to make rapid progress this year until the injuries. Now, he’s not only lost development time, but also lost a year of building up the physical base needed to withstand the rigours of a full baseball season.

While he can only recover so many innings across the six-week AFL season, the talent level at least offers a stern test of where Pearson’s stuff is at.

"This is the top-quality athletes in minor-league baseball," said Stubby Clapp, the Canadian manager of triple-A Memphis in the Cardinals system who is managing the Saguaros. "You watch some of the lineups being run out there, you’re watching some specimens who can run, who can hit, who can play defence, be acrobatic and they can throw fastballs 95-plus. The athleticism is off the charts and it’s just a matter of watching them execute what they can in baseball language."

In that environment, Pearson impressed.

"That was fun to watch," said Clapp. "Obviously live fastball and he commanded it, so that was good, and then a couple good secondary pitches, working on that changeup a little bit. He had some good life."

The whiffs, the awkward swings, the lack of hard contact and the two double-play balls induced to boot all demonstrated that. For someone who’s spent far more time watching than pitching this season, the way he threw the ball made for a pretty good restart.

"It gives me more fuel to the fire to keep working," said Pearson. "You never know what’s going to happen, I couldn’t control that I got injured this year, how I fractured my forearm, but what I can control is my work ethic and that’s never going to change."

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