Settled into new identity, Pearson thrives in high-pressure moments

June 10th, 2023

TORONTO -- The prophecy of wasn’t canceled, it was just delayed.

Once placed atop a pedestal as the Blue Jays’ next great arm, a mountain of a pitcher plucked straight out of a general manager’s dream, Pearson has been reborn as a reliever. This isn’t news any more, but at this point, it’s officially gone from a process to an identity.

In Friday’s 3-2 loss to the Twins at Rogers Centre, you saw Pearson deployed perfectly, picking up after ’s five innings to give Toronto two scoreless frames. Instead of coasting from their starter to the back end of their bullpen, Pearson allows the Blue Jays to take a bullet train.

In the six years since Pearson was selected in the first round of the 2017 MLB Draft, his talent hasn’t changed. It’s been injuries, injuries and injuries that have defined the 26-year-old.

Being hurt can be frustrating enough on its own, and for years, reporters barely spoke with Pearson about pitching. Instead, conversations were anatomy quizzes about strains, stiffnesses and setbacks. As Pearson stood at his locker on Friday, though, no body parts were mentioned. He was a big league pitcher -- and a fine one at that -- breaking down what he does best.

“I feel like I’m finally back to who I was,” Pearson said. “I’m obviously in a different role, but I’m back to just playing baseball and answering baseball questions. For two years, it was, ‘How are you feeling? How’s it progressing? Another setback, how does that make you feel?’ I’m pretty tired of talking about that stuff. Now I can just talk about baseball, about outings, about the next ones.”

There’s a spark to Pearson now. We saw it around the Blue Jays’ complex this spring, when he almost won a job straight out of camp after a successful winter with Tigres del Licey in the Dominican Republic.

All of the radar guns in the world can’t measure the most important piece to Pearson’s puzzle. He’s just plain enjoying himself again.

“I like it,” he said. “I come in with the game on the line, a close game and they trust me. I’m just trying to get quick outs and get this team back in so they can hit. I enjoy it. This gets me pumped up.”

There are still clues of the old Pearson, when he refers to a new role that he’s “accepted,” but something about his 6-foot-6 frame throwing gas just looks natural in big, late innings.

“When that phone rings, everyone’s heart starts beating a little bit faster,” Pearson said. “I like the quickness of getting into the game, not really thinking about much and just going. I get ready pretty quick. I found that out as I transitioned to the bullpen, it’s pretty easy to get going. I like not knowing when I’m throwing, too. That’s pretty fun. It’s cool just to play the game and map it out. Maybe you’ll throw, maybe not. I like the mystery.”

For years, mystery was Pearson’s enemy. Now it’s all part of the show.

The Blue Jays’ bullpen was already fairly good, leaning on and at the back end ahead of . Most contending teams have a strong back end, though, with World Series hopefuls boasting two or three relievers capable of being legitimate shutdown MLB closers.

What Pearson gives Toronto is that “something different,” a surprise shot of adrenaline in spots that were once reserved for someone who fell under that broad, beige term of “middle reliever.”

“If he’s rested enough to do that and you can run him through a string of righties, or really anyone, he’s on,” said manager John Schneider, who has praised Pearson in recent weeks. “I think his last pitch was 102 [mph]. He can do that, or he can come in and pitch a high-leverage inning. His confidence is in the right spot.”

The trick is sustaining this, which Pearson hasn’t had an opportunity to do yet at the Major League level. But a 2.25 ERA with 22 strikeouts over 20 innings is a good enough start. He’s walked just five batters, too, staying true to that old top-prospect identity as a power arm who could still find enough of the zone.

Pearson’s journey to this point isn’t the success story many once fantasized about, but these things rarely play out that way. There are new terms, new expectations and new possibilities for Pearson now as he waits for that dugout phone to ring again.