PITTSBURGH -- On Feb. 9, 2019, Nick Garcia scaled the mound in an unenviable position: one out, bases loaded, his team clinging to a two-run lead in the ninth inning of his first regular-season collegiate outing as a pitcher.
The previous spring, Garcia was a struggling hitter wondering if he could reach his potential while playing at Chapman University. He knew his first relief appearance would set the tone for his sophomore year. So Garcia blew fastballs by Pacific University’s next two hitters and walked off the mound with a save.
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“It was one of those moments where you’re going to sink or swim,” Garcia said, “and I wasn’t going to sink that day.”
The sophomore right-hander was untouchable the rest of the season, a dominant force at the back end of the bullpen as Chapman won the NCAA Division III World Series, and he never looked back.
The former Division III third baseman grew into a lights-out starting pitcher selected by the Pirates in the third round of last week’s MLB Draft. Here’s how the hard-working young man with big league dreams became a “first-round talent” in the eyes of MLB Network analyst Dan O’Dowd and one of the top 30 players on Pittsburgh’s Draft board.
“He’s got talent. He obviously pitched well here. He’s going to pitch well,” Chapman pitching coach Dave Edwards said. “And I really believe that Pittsburgh got a bargain, because there’s so much more there.”
Moving to the mound
Garcia arrived at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., as an athletic, left-handed-hitting third baseman. He played in 24 games as a freshman but struggled in the field and couldn’t really hit, batting .268 with a .293 slugging percentage.
“Nick can’t hit the curveball,” Chapman coach Scott Laverty said, laughing.
Moving him to the mound had always been an option, albeit a risky one. Garcia believed he had the best arm on Chapman’s roster but figured he only had 12-14 innings of experience in high school. The program was putting a lot of faith in Edwards’ ability to help Garcia make that conversion.
“It’s part of my stand-up routine,” Edwards said. “I love third basemen that can’t field their position or hit a baseball.”
Both Garcia and Chapman catcher Joe Jimenez referred to Edwards as “one of the best pitching coaches in the country.” He guided right-hander Christian Cosby, now a prospect in the Royals' system, through a similar shift from hitter to pitcher. But Garcia still had to convince himself that Chapman was the right place to take on that challenge.
Chapman reached the NCAA Division III Regional in Spokane, Wash., during Garcia’s freshman season. By that point, he said, he was “the 26th guy on a 25-man roster.” He traveled with his team but didn’t put on a uniform.
“That was one of those defining moments where it’s like, ‘All right, this is not what I want to be,’” Garcia said.
Jimenez pushed Garcia to stay put rather than transfer. His senior teammates did the same, pointing to Cosby -- a 14th-round Draft pick in 2018 despite his limited pitching experience -- as an example of what he could become. Garcia decided he’d stick it out.
He had only thrown a couple bullpen sessions late in his freshman spring, but his potential was obvious. Without coaching or much experience, his fastball clocked in around 88-90 mph. After a few more sessions, he was sitting around 94-95 mph.
“Everyone’s like, ‘OK, where’d that come from?’” Jimenez said.
Garcia spent the summer of 2018 as a two-way player for the Onondaga Flames in the New York Collegiate Baseball League, where he struck out 26 batters in 14 1/3 innings. Onondaga coach Mike Cordero called Laverty near the end of the summer and said, “You’ve got something here.” Garcia returned to Chapman that fall as a full-time pitcher and thrived, starting with that outing against Pacific to begin his sophomore season.
Garcia felt like the game slowed down for him after that, and with confidence came success. He posted a 9-0 record with 12 saves, a 0.64 ERA and a 0.80 WHIP while striking out 82 batters in 56 innings. With success came more confidence.
“I always felt like I had that ‘it’ factor to do it,” Garcia said. “I just needed to find where it was going to be for me.”
From potential to prospect
Last summer, Garcia found himself in another sink-or-swim situation. Looking to maintain some momentum and develop effective breaking pitches, Garcia set out to face some of the country’s best collegiate players in the Cape Cod League.
It was a quick turnaround. Twelve days after Chapman won the 2019 NCAA Division III World Series in Iowa and earned Most Outstanding Player, he gave up a walk-off single in his second outing. It was the first time he had ever walked off the mound as the losing pitcher.
“And he says, ‘Honestly, it’s just going to make me learn.’ That’s the thing about Nick,” Jimenez said. “He thinks he’s the best, and in a game like baseball, you need to think you’re the best to perform at your level. That’s easily one of his biggest strengths.”
Laverty called it a good learning experience and a confidence booster for Garcia. The 6-foot-4 righty realized he couldn’t just attack high-level hitters with fastballs, but he recognized his stuff was already good enough to compete against them.
“Without that, I don’t know if I am where I am now,” Garcia said. “There were a lot of days where you’re taking one step forward, one step back, two steps forward, one step back. Those days can be a grind, but they taught me a lot.”
After a successful stint in the Cape Cod League that boosted his Draft stock, Garcia returned to Chapman last fall with a better feel for his offspeed stuff. Edwards first had Garcia learn to throw a cutter, then his slider developed off of that. Garcia used to throw a curveball, and Edwards insists his changeup is “really good,” too -- good enough to make him a four-pitch pitcher and, therefore, a starter.
Garcia immediately became Chapman’s ace this spring. In five starts, he recorded a 2.00 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 27 innings. He repeated his delivery and maintained his fastball velocity throughout his starts, consistently sitting around 94-96 mph and touching 97.
Laverty said the transition was smooth and effortless. Jimenez thought Garcia had more fun as a starter. Garcia said it came natural, even though he’d never done it before. In his final outing on March 9, Garcia walked one batter and gave up one hit on a swinging bunt while striking out nine over five innings.
“It felt like the easiest, most electric stuff I had ever felt before,” Garcia said.
Garcia speaks often about his desire to work hard and improve daily. He shows it in the weight room and in his side work, Edwards said, and he’s a sponge for information. All that work was paying off. But just as everything clicked, the coronavirus pandemic cut his junior season short.
Turns out, he’d already done enough to intrigue the Pirates.
Garcia watched Day 2 of the Draft alongside his parents, Joe and Cathy, and other family and friends at home in San Carlos, Calif. He knew the Pirates were interested, with scout Brian Tracy having watched him in person, but still didn’t know what to expect.
He didn’t sleep well the night before, then relief came when the Pirates -- thrilled to see him on the board in the third round -- called his name 79th overall.
“It was just so special,” Garcia said. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Garcia didn’t get to work with advanced pitching technology at Chapman, and he’s still developing as a starter. That’s why Edwards says “there’s so much more coming for him” when he gets to the Minor Leagues. His upside isn’t on full display yet, unlike the drive and determination that got him here.
“I’m kind of behind in the number of years that I’ve thrown, but what I’m trying to do every day is learn and work hard and take the steps that I can,” Garcia said. “Now, luckily I’ve got a chance to take the next step and do the same thing, and hopefully it’ll lead me to great places.”
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.