Before he took the mound last night in the nation’s capital, 28-year-old lefty Tim Collins had not pitched in the majors since October 28, 2014, when he threw a scoreless inning against the San Francisco Giants for the Kansas City Royals in the World Series.
The next March, Collins had Tommy John surgery. One year later, in March of 2016, an MRI revealed that the replacement ligament in his elbow didn’t hold. Collins had a second surgery that Spring. He became a free agent in late 2016, signed a deal with the Nats in December of that year, and after making 18 appearances across three levels of the Nationals’ minor league system last summer, he returned to the organization, hoping he’d finally get a shot.
Collins put up a 3.63 ERA, a 2.65 FIP, nine walks (4.67 BB/9), and 20 Ks (10.38 K/9) in 17 1⁄3 IP at Triple-A Syracuse before he got the call to the majors when Ryan Madson landed on the 10-Day DL on Monday. His reaction to learning that all the hard work and rehab finally paid off?
“It was kind of the complete opposite of what I thought it was going to be like,” Collins told reporters in Nationals Park after he arrived in the nation’s capital.
“Kind of had to take a step back and take a deep breath. It was a lot better than when I got called up for the first time [in 2011], or was told that I was going to make the team out of Spring Training. They were both great, but different in the sense that I had put in so much work after having surgery to get to this point, and it’s kind of fighting an uphill battle, whereas I was completely healthy and young going into that Spring Training and making the team, so it was a dream come true making the team out of Spring Training that year, but this was more just kind of seeing everything come together after two surgeries and three years of rehabbing. That was something special that I’ll never forget.”
“It’s been a long road,” Collins said. “It’s been over three years. Last time was 2014, so finally out of that tunnel.”
The southpaw said it meant a lot to get back to the majors with the Nationals, who gave him an opportunity.
“They took a chance,” Collins said. “Not many teams will take a chance on a guy with two Tommy Johns.
“I kind of wanted to see the fruits of the labor with these guys since they took the shot with me, and it was a no-brainer signing back here.”
There were times, he admitted, when he wasn’t sure he would make it back up.
“Yeah, a lot,” Collins acknowledged. “There were a lot of times that it seemed like it was going to be never-ending. The last probably eight months have been kind of the longest eight months of my life, and not bad, just all the work that I’ve put in through the rehab, the first rehab, having it fail, and then having to go through a second rehab and through ups and downs last year, pitching in games, and finally healthy coming into Spring Training and eventually going to Triple-A, and it’s been a long six or seven weeks there, so I had a lot of fun there, don’t get me wrong, but I’m much happier being here.”
In the eighth inning of what ended up a 10-2 win over the Padres on Monday, the Nationals called upon Collins, after seven innings from starter Gio Gonzalez, and the diminutive lefty threw a scoreless frame, working around a two-out single by former teammate Eric Hosmer in a 16-pitch inning in which he picked up two Ks, throwing a 93-94 mph fastball and a 75-76 mph curve.
His velocity was pretty much what he was throwing before the surgeries, when he averaged 93.5 mph on his fastball from 2011-14.
“My velocity has been pretty good this year,” Collins said after the game. “Obviously I’d like to throw 100, but I just don’t think that’s in there. So, I think I’m right where I need to be, my fastball feels really good, my offspeed is really coming along, I think it’s right where it needs to be ... could probably be a little bit sharper, but yeah, I think all around I’m right where I need to be.”
“Great story,” Davey Martinez said when asked about Collins making it all the way back.
“I mean here’s a guy — two Tommy John surgeries, three years of building up, gets a chance to come back in the big leagues and he went out there and he was — I was really pumped up for him, and the emotions were high right there when he came out, I mean it really was.
“I’m waiting for him right now, and I’m going to go back in and talk to him and tell him, ‘Hey, I’m really proud of you, man.’ Just a testament to what kind of guy he is.”
Collins said before the game that he thought his experience in pressure situations would help him control his emotions and not let them get the best of him when he got an opportunity to get back on the mound in the majors. When he finally got out there?
“Running out I was pretty emotional, whether I showed it or not, but after that first pitch and pop-out, I just settled in and just knew it was another game,” Collins said.
The experience, as a whole, of finally having all that hard work pay off?
“I think it was good,” Collins said. “The anticipation is what kills me the most, so it was nice to get in the first game, and kind of get that out of the way, and it’s kind of like your debut, you don’t ever want to wait, so the anticipation for me is what gets me, but I’m obviously happy with the results today.”