TORONTO — In no way was it surprising.
Reinforcement is what it was.
Nate Pearson has been flashing top-of-the-rotation potential ever since being drafted 28th overall in 2017 with the pick the Toronto Blue Jays gained when they let fan favourite Edwin Encarnacion walk as a free agent. So it was little surprise he was able to go and look dominant against the reigning World Series champion Washington Nationals in his debut.
It was only five innings and 75 pitches thanks to a strict cap of 80 bullets the Jays held the 6-foot-6 right-hander to Wednesday night, but he made the most of it and went toe-to-toe with Max Scherzer in what’s sure to be a memorable first start for the Odessa, Fla., native.
"I knew it was going to be a good duel … it’s definitely something I’ll look back on in my debut and say I was able to match up with Max Scherzer and held my own for five innings," Pearson said afterwards. "I know he went a little bit longer, but it was still fun to be able to pitch against him."
With his parents, sister and girlfriend watching from a nearby D.C. hotel, the pandemic-driven atmosphere will always provide unique memories. But once Pearson took the mound as the home team in Blue Jays’ whites at Nationals Park in the top of the first inning, it was like any other rookie debut.
"I was taking it all in in the first inning," Pearson said. "Looking around and just taking mental pictures of where I was at, just thinking about the long three years I went through, the injuries, all the adversity I went through, to be able to overcome all that to be here and I knew all my friends and family were watching from back home. It was just very special for me."
Here are five takeaways from Pearson’s big-league debut.
Go deeper, get stronger
This started becoming a noticeable theme late last season when the Jays finally took the reins off their prized prospect, allowing him to up his pitch counts and go deeper into ballgames.
Over the course of his relatively short minor-league career, one that featured just 34 starts, Pearson threw 80-plus pitches just eight times.
Seven of those occasions came at the tail end of 2019, including all three of his Triple-A tune-ups.
With that came all sorts of evidence that Pearson actually gets stronger and throws harder as games go on, a very good sign for his ability to reach that rare true ace ceiling.
"Yeah, high school," Pearson said with a grin when asked when he started noticing that trend. "I’ve always been like that. Ever since high school, I can remember I’d get into the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh — you only play seven innings in high school — and when I was finishing games and I was feeling my best stuff at the end of the game, that’s when I kind of knew that I kind of have a special arm. I don’t know exactly why it happens that way. I get more adrenaline as the game goes on, so I want to finish. I want to be the last pitcher and I want to finish on a high note. I don’t want to finish after giving up hits or anything. I want to go out on my terms."
It’s ace stuff and he has an ace mentality to go along with it.
Pearson retired six in a row and struck out three of the last four hitters to end his night.
"I settle in throughout the game and you’ll see my velocity start getting higher as the game goes on because I get more settled into my mechanics and I get more comfortable with the strike zone, I learn the umpire’s strike zone and me and [Danny] Jansen, or whoever’s catching, we get on the same page and we start grooving," Pearson said.
Two elite pitches
Over the first three innings, Pearson relied on exactly what got him here: a devastating fastball-slider combination.
To get his first nine outs, Pearson threw 32 fastballs and 16 sliders, which was the gameplan the whole way.
"When we sat down and went over the scouting report and lineup, there were a few guys who hit changeups pretty well but had trouble with the slider," Pearson explained. "So we were like, ‘Let’s go at them with my dominant stuff, fastball-slider,’ and we did that the first two times through the order."
In the fourth frame, Pearson started mixing in his curveball and changeup, with Nationals hitters swinging and missing on all of them.
In total, Pearson got 14 swings-and-misses on his 75 pitches — eight on the slider, four on his fastball, and one apiece on the lightly-used change (three thrown) and hook (two thrown) — for an above-average rate.
"Had a little bit of everything working," Pearson said. "Fastball command was there at times when I needed. Still wasn’t where I wanted it to be, but, man, my slider was on tonight and it was my big pitch. It got me out of a lot of jams and got some big strikeouts on it."
After allowing a leadoff double to Eric Thames to start the fourth inning, Pearson induced a Kurt Suzuki groundout and a Starlin Castro lineout to sit on the brink of stranding Thames at third.
He did just that by dismantling Nats third baseman Carter Kieboom, himself a top 20 prospect, with just three pitches.
An 86.6 mph slider on the outside edge for strike one.
A 96.5 mph fastball on the same outside edge had Kieboom swinging through it.
Now one pitch from getting out of the inning, Pearson reared back and a dialled up a 98.5 mph fastball and spotted it at the bottom of the zone on the corner, leaving Kieboom frozen for the backwards K.
Pearson could be even tougher for batters to deal with if he can fully round out his repertoire, which is scary to think about.
The development of the curveball is key.
"I think I threw [a curveball] at 77 [mph], which is perfect," Pearson said. "I want it to be right around 80 mph because it separates my fastball from 97 to an 87-mph slider to an 89- mph changeup and then that drops down to 77. If you’ve got that 20-mph difference from your curveball to your fastball, it’s very unlikely they’re going to be able to square it up and it just keeps them off balance."
A chance every fifth day
Aces instill confidence.
No matter how the team is playing for the previous four days, an ace gives a club a chance to win every fifth day.
One start into his career, Pearson already has his manager feeling that way.
"This team is excited," Charlie Montoyo said. "When he got out of the game, I said, ‘Hey, man, we’ve got a chance to win every five days.’ That’s the first thing I said because he was really good."
That’s the highest compliment that can be paid to a young pitcher, even if it ratchets up the expectations even more.
Pearson’s pitch count Wednesday was a product both of the pandemic — the majority of pitchers are restricted in the early going thanks to a lack of real prep time — as well as the Jays being ultra-careful with one of the keys to their long-term hopes.
With a 245-pound frame that you’d think would be capable of handling large workloads, Pearson isn’t going to come out of games as easily in the future.
It will be interesting to see how the Jays, an organization driven by a high performance department that values rest and sticks to pretty strict pitch counts even when arms are built up, handle an arm as talented as Pearson’s.
"I can definitely see myself being like Max Scherzer," Pearson said with another grin. "I saw him do the same thing today, going up to his manager and asking to go back out there. That really fires me up and that’s exactly who I want to be.
"I wanted to do it today, but obviously probably not the best to do it on my debut when I had a pitch count and everything."
Like many of the prospects the Jays have brought into the organization over the past couple of years, Pearson is an absolute joy to deal with.
And not just because the he’s still in happy-to-be-here mode.
Pearson is engaging as an interview – thoughtful, smart and with the ability to add a bit of anecdotal humour.
There’s a genuineness to him that hasn’t wavered since he was drafted.
But it’s the quiet confidence that’s unmistakable, too.
Each and every time he’s faced major-league bats since February, that confidence grows.
"That my stuff plays here and I belong here," Pearson said of what he’ll take from his first MLB start. "Just carry that confidence that I had today over to my next outing and my outings in years to come."
Turning 24 on Aug. 20, Pearson’s velocity is the first thing that’s noticed.
But it’s how he’s morphed from a thrower into a pitcher in three short years that’s truly exciting for those inside the Jays organization.
"Just how cool and collected he is," Montoyo said of his first impression. "He knows what he’s doing. He can throw his breaking pitches behind in the count. You’re not just going to see 2-1 fastball, he got his breaking pitches over, too. That’s impressive to me for a young guy."