FWOOP – Tim Cate’s first pitch in a live game for UConn since March 29 flew through the air at J.O. Christian field and landed on the outside corner for a strike.
It was Cate’s signature pitch, a snapping curveball that head coach Jim Penders calls “the best breaking ball in the entire country when it’s on, and the best breaking ball in the draft,” and the dozen or so scouts standing behind home plate took notice.
Two pitches later there was a louder FWOOP, as his first fastball of the day sped in high for a ball. His heater usually hangs around 90-93 mph but this one clocked in at the 95, with all that built up tension from missing five-plus weeks.
“There was a lot of adrenaline, that was my first time coming out of the pen in a while, and I just tried to let it eat a little bit,” Cate said.
There was also a decent bit of nerves that came with making his first relief start since his freshman year. Cate started warming up before the fifth inning, then sat down midway through, trying to get in his groove before facing the top of the ECU order.
“The biggest thing for me was just knowing how to loosen up because as a starter, I’m pretty much always on a set schedule, but being a reliever, you don’t know what pitch you’re gonna go in,” Cate said.
Cate’s final line ended up being 2.0 innings pitched with one strikeout while allowing no runs on four hits, all off his signature breaking ball.
Cate’s curve didn’t have as much snap as usual. It stayed up in the zone, allowing the top of the ECU order to get to them and turning strikeouts into groundouts and groundouts into base hits. But neither Penders nor Cate were particularly worried–it’ll come with time.
“I’d have to give myself a B [on the outing], the fastball was working good but the curveball was staying up a little, so there’s still a little work to do,” Cate said.
Here’s the first pitch back from injury for @UConnBSB LHP Tim Cate. Continued to land CB for strikes 80-82, good spin with depth. First FB at 95 mph, lived 91-93 with plane; balances mechanics with extension out front. #MLBDraft pic.twitter.com/nefm46eaDh
— Jheremy Brown (@JBrownPG) May 18, 2018
The road back to the mound was a long one, as Cate went exactly 50 days in between appearances with the Huskies. He originally experienced some forearm tightness after his start against Hartford, during which he threw 6.2 innings of scoreless ball, allowing two hits and striking out six.
Penders was taking absolutely no chances and sat him immediately after he heard the symptoms.
“Forearm tightness isn’t something to mess around with, because that can lead to other things,” Penders said. “I said he wasn’t gonna get on the mound until he got an MRI, then he did that and it was all clean, and then you gotta work him back in.”
Once the MRI came back clean, Cate was handed over to the doctors and team physical therapist.
It wasn’t the easiest of rehab stints for Cate, who had to deal with the doctors’ slow rehab pace while the rest of the team was off and winning games without him on the field.
The Huskies went 18-11 without their ace, picking up big series wins on the road against ranked opponents Wichita State and UCF, as well as conference foes Cincinnati, Tulane and Memphis. They worked their way up to as high as No. 19 in the national polls.
Meanwhile, Cate was sitting at home in Storrs, wondering when he could get back out there to help out his teammates.
“It was tough since we were on the road so much, staying back for the majority of the trips, watching from the sideline and not really being in contact with them besides group chats,” Cate said.
That feeling subided a little as UConn began to play more home games in late April and early May, and when Cate started throwing off the mound for the first time since his injury in the Houston series. But he still wanted in on the action.
There was a slight possibility he could have been ready to go on Sunday that weekend, but they held off because he wasn’t quite ready for primetime, Penders said.
“He’s got a multi-million dollar arm there, and we’re just going to be careful with how we use it,” Penders said. “He had to beg for it, I wasn’t gonna put him out there until he knew in his own mind that he was fine.”
One can’t help but draw comparisons between Cate and former UConn pitcher Anthony Kay. Both first-round MLB draft prospects had massive amounts of hype before the season, and both went down to injuries later in the year.
Kay required Tommy John surgery after getting drafted 25th overall by the Mets, at least partly due to his heavy use in the tournaments that year. Kay pitched a complete game on the 19th against Memphis, then turning around and pitching four days later against Houston, where he went 90 pitches.
Penders will take no such chances with Cate this postseason and won’t even have him make a start in the American Athletic Conference tournament or the regional. Cate will be used mostly as a boost to the bullpen–the one major weakness on this UConn team, serving as a bridge from the starter to Jake Wallace or PJ Poulin.
After the postseason comes less certainty. Depending on how well he performs, Cate could end up being taken anywhere from the first round to the mid-rounds of the MLB Draft.
The multiple radar guns pointed at Cate from behind the backstop served as a constant reminder of that future, but Cate is focused on the present: Helping his team make a deep run in the postseason.
“I was just trying to throw strikes, I try and block that noise out,” Cate said. “You can’t do anything except try to perform the best that you can, and sometimes thinking about that can throw you off your game.”
Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.