When the Washington Nationals break camp and head north Thursday night to begin their regular season, Tim Collins will stay behind in West Palm Beach preparing for his own Opening Day, one tentatively scheduled for this summer. The left-handed reliever was among the first round of Nationals reassigned to minor league camp early this month because he was never in contention for a roster spot. Collins actually might never throw a pitch in the Nationals organization, at any level, because it’s been two Tommy John surgeries since Collins last pitched in any game of consequence, which happened to be Game 6 of the 2014 World Series.
That the Nationals took a flier on Collins when he opted for free agency last November isn’t surprising. The organization has not shied away from drafting or signing pitchers who have undergone the surgery, tapping into the market inefficiency for talent it otherwise probably wouldn’t have a chance of acquiring. Collins wasn’t even the only two-time Tommy John recipient in camp: Shawn Kelley and Joe Nathan have also had their ulnar collateral ligaments replaced twice.
But Collins is different because he is 5 feet 7 3/4 inches tall. According to Baseball Reference, he is one of the 12 shortest people to pitch in a major league game since the beginning of the expansion era in 1961.
“My body, physically or scientifically, shouldn’t be capable of doing what it does,” said the 27-year-old Collins, who also underwent sports hernia surgery three years ago. “So to have two Tommy Johns and try to come back from that, scientifically if anybody looks at it, it’s kind of impossible. But then again, throwing is impossible when you research it.”
When Collins graduated from Worcester Technical High in 2007, he stood 5-5, weighed 130 pounds, and threw an 82 mph fastball. The profile, despite being one of the best high school pitchers in Massachusetts, didn’t attract any significant interest from four-year college programs. He signed with the Community College of Rhode Island to play baseball in the fall.
The plan changed that summer when J.P. Ricciardi, a Worcester native and the Toronto Blue Jays General Manager at the time, attended an American Legion game in Worcester to watch a pitcher on the opposing team. Collins wasn’t supposed to pitch and started in right field, but he entered the game in relief and struck out 12 batters in four innings. A bullpen session was then set up with a Blue Jays scout and the organization advised Collins to attend St. Petersburg College in Florida because the Blue Jays’ rookie league manager was the head coach there. But Collins had already signed with CCRI, so Ricciardi signed him as an undrafted free agent. Three days later, the 17-year-old Collins flew to Florida to join the Gulf Coast League team.
“Just right place right time,” said Collins, who lives in Glen Allen, Va. with his wife and two children during the offseason.
A body transformation fueled Collins’s rocket rise through the minors. By the time he broke camp on the Kansas City Royals’ Opening Day roster in 2011 – he was traded from the Blue Jays to the Atlanta Braves to the Royals the previous season while striking out 13.6 batters per nine innings – he had added 40 pounds of muscle and 14 inches to his vertical leap, even growing a couple inches from high school. The makeover added 10 mph to his fastball, and he paired it with a wicked curveball to become a mainstay in the Royals’ bullpen over the next four seasons. He posted a 3.54 ERA and struck out 9.4 batters per nine innings in 211 innings across 228 games, and appeared in four playoff games, including three in the World Series, in 2014.
“He throws high fastballs,” Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux said. “Those short guys, they’re able to get under it and it’s just a different look you don’t see every day. It’s kind of an oddity when you see it, the ball comes uphill. Their delivery is at a plane you don’t see all the time.”
It was a curveball that derailed Collins’s career in a Cactus League game two years ago. He felt a twinge as soon he threw the pitch, but stayed in for the remainder of the at-bat to throw about 10 more. The discomfort intensified with each toss, escalating from extreme fatigue to fiery agony. Orthopedist James Andrews performed Tommy John surgery on his left elbow the next week.
That was in March 2015, and Collins was told he’d be on the mound pitching in games again in 12 to 16 months. But a year later, something just didn’t feel right. Simple, everyday tasks like turning a door knob still hurt, and the pain was localized around the ulnar collateral ligament. So Collins requested an MRI exam, and it showed his UCL was completely torn again. A month later, on April 15, 13 months after his first Tommy John surgery, orthopedist Neal ElAttrache performed Collins’s second procedure.
“It was just kind of disbelief,” Collins said. “To find out 12 months later you need it all again, but even longer … to say it was frustrating is an understatement.”
This rehabilitation process’s pace was more deliberate initially than the first time to avoid avulsion fractures, and Collins’s return window was consequently extended to 12 to 18 months. His goal is to begin a rehab assignment in June and start pitching in games in July. Collins can opt out of his contract that month, but he emphasized he wants to stay with the Nationals.
“Wherever that assignment might be, big leagues, Triple A, Double A, whatever, I feel like I’m here to stay,” Collins said. “I don’t want to call it quits because I’m not in the big leagues by July. My goal is to finish this year healthy, whether that’s Triple A or in the big leagues, and be healthy for 2018.”
Collins began throwing again in October for six weeks before taking six weeks off at Thanksgiving and resuming in January. By mid-March, just before the Nationals reassigned him, he was throwing three days on and one day off.
“One day you feel like you’re not going to progress, and then the next day, boom, it clicks,” Collins said. “It’s a weird feeling, but it just happens.”
It happened again a few weeks ago playing catch at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Collins had been wondering when his arm strength would reemerge, when the ball would have the life with minimal effort like it did before the surgeries. Then one day it just did. They are the kind of days that make him feel like he’ll beat the odds again.
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