Blue Jays fireballer finds new life as a reliever

February 25th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Keegan Matheson’s Blue Jays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- There’s something different about Nate Pearson this spring.

He’s always been huge. He’s always lit up the radar gun. He’s always thrown with his right arm. For once, though, we’re not talking about his body.

In 2020, Pearson was the Blue Jays’ No. 1 prospect and the second-best pitching prospect in baseball, ranked No. 10 overall by MLB Pipeline. A spiral of injuries has haunted Pearson, though, and even when it looked like he’d have a chance to rebound in 2022, he dealt with a long bout of mononucleosis. He’s led the league in bad luck at times.

There’s a mental freedom to Pearson now, though. His prospect status is gone and his starting days are over, instead focusing on a shorter relief role. This winter, he pitched with Tigres del Licey in the Dominican Winter League, living in Santo Domingo. He buzzed through 12 scoreless innings, taking home a 0.00 ERA with 16 strikeouts. He felt like “Big Nate” again.

“I have to get back to what made baseball fun for me,” Pearson said recently.

At times, he admits, baseball stopped being fun.

“It was kind of hard going through all of the injuries and battling through that. But I realized why you play the game,” Pearson said. “When you’re healthy, it makes all of the rehab and everything worth it. When you get back healthy and do what I was able to do today, facing these guys, it was just awesome. It was a blast.”

What Pearson did that day was face live hitters on Field 2 at the Blue Jays’ complex. In the final at-bat, he got Matt Chapman to swing through a breaking ball for strike three. Asked if that’s the feeling he’s been chasing, Pearson lit up.

There’s still so much that needs to happen between this point and Pearson being a legitimate piece of the Blue Jays’ bullpen in the big leagues, but this is a refreshing starting point after years of frustration. Pearson’s physical tools didn’t go anywhere, though, and he’s still just 26. That’s why pitching coach Pete Walker jumped straight to the mental game when asked about Pearson recently.

“There’s not as much pressure on him right now, which is nice,” Walker said. “He’s just going about his business and I think he looks really comfortable in his own skin right now. His stuff is outstanding. He knows who he is as a pitcher right now. I’m really excited to see him this spring.”

Pearson’s time in the Dominican was important, too. He loved the opportunity to experience where so many of his Latin teammates grew up, playing in front of big, rowdy and drum-banging crowds. He learned where to eat -- and where not to eat -- and embraced the adventure as much as the baseball.

Most important, though, was that Pearson’s innings in the Dominican mattered. These weren’t rehab outings with pitch counts, they were meaningful moments with wins and losses teetering in the balance.

“I can do it. I knew I could do it, to be able to go down there and handle business like that, it was a good time,” Pearson said. “To be able to pitch in leverage was one of the main things I was excited for. I was a leverage reliever. I only came in when the game was close, and if the game wasn’t close, I didn’t come in. Just feeling that pressure and the crowd was fun.”

This is all just a start, but a fresh one. Pearson is off the old starter’s track and onto this new bullpen track, which isn’t what we all envisioned years ago, but this mental refresh could give Pearson’s career new life.