WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Last summer, Tim Collins, after two Tommy John surgeries, two grueling rehabs and three years without throwing a pitch in a competitive baseball game, made his return July 12 with the Nationals’ Gulf Coast League affiliate. It was the lowest rung of affiliated minor league baseball, but Collins expected to complete a rapid rise to the majors, where he was sure he belonged, over the next couple months. He was determined. It was his goal. He fell short.
“So, at one point,” Collins said, “to me, it was a failure.”
Collins ended up pitching in 18 games through Sept. 3 across three levels, none higher than Class AA Harrisburg. He compiled a 7.79 ERA in 17 1/3 innings. He posted 23 strikeouts to 14 walks. In the moment, he considered the return a disappointment. But a couple weeks into the offseason, after digesting the “brutal honesty” he received from Nationals officials, his perspective shifted.
“I grew to appreciate that they kind of took the reins and steadily progressed me along,” Collins said. “I always prided myself on being a good self-evaluator. I just wasn’t that guy last year.”
What Collins, 28, is trying to accomplish — a return to the big leagues after having Tommy John surgery twice — has been done by a small, but growing, group of pitchers. It’s just the latest twist in an implausible path for a 5-foot-7 left-hander who signed as an undrafted free agent the summer after graduating high school and ascended through the majors in four years to make his major league debut at 21.
He was reliable immediately when he reached the bigs with the Royals in 2011, becoming a bullpen mainstay. He tallied a 3.54 ERA (117 ERA+) and struck out 9.4 batters per nine innings over 228 appearances in three-plus seasons before his elbow gave out during the 2014 season.
He signed a minor league deal with the Nationals last winter because of their history working with Tommy John recipients. Last spring, he was a limited participant in big league camp as he continued rehabbing following the second procedure, which he underwent in 2016. This spring, after signing another minor league deal with an invitation to spring training and a July 1 opt-out, he’s in a crowded competition for one of the final unclaimed spots in Washington’s bullpen. And he’s making a strong case to stick.
Collins, who has survived two rounds of cuts, has surrendered three runs over 7 1/3 innings in six games. He gave up two of the runs Sunday, which hiked his ERA from 1.42 to 3.68. He has 11 strikeouts and three walks.
“Beyond the stuff part of it we’ve seen, he’s getting closer to where he was,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “His character and the way he gets after it and his attitude on the mound is really infectious to us. And he’s really endeared himself to a lot of his teammates.”
Collins said he doesn’t believe he’s a different pitcher than he was before the surgeries when he’s on the mound. The difference lies in his pregame routine. There’s more preparation. Stretching is a requirement.
“But once I’m ready and out there, I feel like I’m the same guy [as] pre-Tommy John,” Collins said. “Same mentality. I think I feel a little more in tune with my body, if anything, than I was. Before, I would just rear back and throw. I still do that, but I feel like I’ve taken the time to learn my body a little bit better and stay within myself and still get the most out of my body.”
The next step is pitching in games on back-to-back days, which he hasn’t done since returning last year. Proving he can handle the quick turnaround would only help his candidacy for one of the two or three bullpen slots seemingly up for grabs, which would complete his improbable comeback.
“I’ve prepared myself for that the last three years to put myself in position to be successful,” Collins said. “So my main goal is to come into camp and make the team. If I don’t, hopefully it was because I was outpitched. I think I’ve prepared myself well enough to come in and pitch well and hopefully make the team.”
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