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College  | Story  | 4/15/2015

Backend or frontend, Tate sizzles

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: UC Santa Barbara

Dillon Tate VideoNational College Notebook: April 14

Back in the fall of 2014 and continuing into the late winter months of 2015, University of California Santa Barbara fourth-year head coach and pitching coach Andrew Checketts slept well at night knowing he had one of college baseball’s most dominant closers in the backend of his bullpen heading into the 2015 season.

Now, midway through April 2015, Checketts continues to rest easy knowing that same electric right arm – the one belonging to junior Dillon Tate – is being utilized on the frontend of his rotation as the Gauchos’ Friday night starter for No. 10-ranked UC Santa Barbara (26-8 overall, 4-2 Big West Conference).

Transitioning from one of NCAA Division I’s most elite closers to one of D-I’s elite Friday night starters requires shifting gears and realigning focus while maintaining the same steadfast mindset that translates into success at both the start of the game and the end. Tate has made the adjustment.

He is a 6-foot-2, 200-pound, hard-throwing righty from Claremont, Calif., which sits about 125 miles east of UC Santa Barbara’s Pacific oceanfront campus. The Gauchos’ program has blossomed in three previous seasons under Checketts’ guidance and with Tate heading a talented pitching staff that carries a 2.13 team ERA, UCSB is now a top-10 team nationally with big-time talent and big-time ambitions.

“So far with the team, we just kind of put our heads down and work as hard as we can; it’s been pedal to the metal,” Tate told PG in a telephone interview this week. “Right now I like where we’re at but we still have a lot of work to do. We have to clean up some of the small things like a lot of the teams do, but that’s what good teams do. Hopefully we’ll be right where we want to be later on down the road.”

After picking up a win last weekend at Cal State Northridge, Tate entered this week at 5-3 with a 1.73 ERA, having allowed 13 earned runs on 42 hits with 71 strikeouts and 18 walks in 67 2/3 innings. He gives up an average of 5.6 hits per nine innings while striking out an average of 9.4, and he has thrown two complete games while averaging 7 2/3 innings per outing.

Just last week USA Baseball named Tate to the 60-player midseason Golden Spike Award Watch List. The Golden Spike Award is presented annually to the nation’s top amateur player as deemed by baseball’s national governing body.

“He acts like a pro already,” Checketts said in a separate telephone interview with PG. “He’s really into the preparation side of it (and) he doesn’t leave anything to chance in terms of what his weekly routine looks like. He’s got a book that he keeps on his outings and he’s always trying to learn and improve, so he’s been fun to watch from that standpoint.”

Tate’s fastball has been living in the mid-90s (mph) and has hit 96-97 mph in almost every outing this season. But that heater isn’t the only bullet in his gun, a fact documented in a Perfect Game pre-draft report published on April 9. The report, compiled by PG Vice President of Player Personnel David Rawnsley and PG National Scouting Coordinator Jheremy Brown, read:

“His slider is one of the best breaking balls in all of college showing plus-life in the mid-80s, and is nearly unhittable for a right-handed hitter. Tate shows plenty of confidence and feel in his slider and shows much of the same with his changeup. … Tate shows an advanced feel for his change and knows how to mix it despite his limited starting experience. Thrown in the mid-80s, the pitch shows late fading life and is consistently down in the zone while showing the ability to double- or triple-up on the pitch if needed.”

Even with two-thirds of the regular season in the books, Tate continues to learn something about his new role every time he steps out on the mound to make his next start. He credits the Gauchos’ coaching staff – Checketts, in particular – along with his teammates for helping him ease into the transition.

“It hasn’t been something that I’ve done all on my own,” he said. … “I’m still learning a lot and I have a lot of work to do, so basically each week I’m just trying to go out there and learn. I feel like my mindset is still to go out there and put up as many zeroes as I can for the team. I don’t think the mindset going from a closer to a starter has really changed for me.”

One thing that does definitely change in the inner workings of a pitcher’s mind when making this transition is the consideration that his game-time experience is going to jump from maybe 10 minutes of work to 2½ hours.

It was something Tate gave a lot of thought to during the offseason, even before he learned his role was changing. He wanted to make sure he was ready for anything that came his way, so he spent the winter months conditioning his body in an effort to be able to throw for a longer period of time than it was used to.

“It takes work ethic and preparation and commitment – all the stuff that makes people great,” Checketts said. “Dillon has always had a goal to be a starter; he came into the fall wanting to be a starter. He was willing to do whatever we asked him to do but his eye was on the prize of being the Friday starter. He’s been pretty good at setting his mind on doing something and then going out and doing it.”

CHECKETTS’ OTHER TWO WEEKEND STARTERS HAVE ALSO BEEN wickedly effective while posting numbers that are almost mirror images of one another. Junior left-hander Justin Jacome from Redlands, Calif., is 6-1 with a 2.08 ERA in nine starts and 65 innings, with 56 strikeouts and 15 walks. Sophomore right-hander Shane Bieber from Laguna Hills, Calif., is 5-2 with a 2.05 ERA, with 59 strikeouts and only six walks in 66 innings over nine starts.

Junior southpaw Domenic Mazza is 4-0 with a 2.18 ERA after nine appearances (six starts), with 38 strikeouts and 15 walks in 41 1/3 innings. Robby Nesovic from El Cajon, Calif., and James Carter from Danville, Calif., a pair of junior right-handers, have assumed the closer role, and each has five saves. Nesovic is 1-0 with a 1.74 ERA, nine strikeouts and five walks in 10 1/3 innings; Carter is 1-0 with 0.00 ERA, 12 strikeouts and three walks in 9 2/3 innings.

The members of the staff not only feed off one another but they have a knack for picking each other up.

Tate had one of his worst outings of the season in last weekend's Big West Conference series opener at Cal State Northridge, allowing four earned runs on nine hits with four strikeouts and two walks in the Gauchos’ 7-4 win (Tate earned his fifth win of the season). The next day, Jacome allowed two earned runs on four hits in eight innings of work and picked up his sixth win in UCSB’s 3-2 victory.

“(Jacome) came out on Saturday and he absolutely dominated – he threw a ton of strikes and he filled up the zone – and it was just really fun to watch,” Tate said. “I think that kind of motivated me for my next outing because we’re all competing with each other when we go out there and we all want to do as good, or better, than the next guy. We definitely all push each other.”

When asked about the Gauchos’ success this season, Checketts said: “The obvious part of it is that we’ve pitched really well and we’ve pitched at the frontend of the games really well. Dillon has obviously had a good year but the other two guys that have started have really done a good job. They’ve been in the strike zone and they’ve got quality stuff; they’re complete pitchers.”

The Gauchos are hitting .292 as a team with four regulars – two seniors, one junior and a sophomore that have played in at least 31 games -- hitting between .325 and .339.

Nesovic, who plays the infield when he’s not pitching in relief, is hitting .339 with team-highs of eight doubles and 29 runs-batted-in; senior Cameron Newell (.325) has six doubles, a triple, three home runs and 20 RBI.

Senior Luke Swenson (.337) has five doubles, four triples and 17 RBI and sophomore Andrew Calica (.336) has six doubles, two triples and team-high 26 runs. Junior Dalton Kelly is hitting .262 but 10 of his 27 hits went for extra-bases – including three homers – and he has driven in 18.

Tate pitched only three innings in four appearances as a freshman in 2013 and allowed three earned runs to leave him with a dismal 9.00 ERA; no one on the UCSB campus had any “A Star is Born” revelations. The Gauchos did advance to an NCAA D-I Regional in Corvallis, Ore., that season, however, the first time since 2001 they made it to the NCAA tournament.

The following year, during the spring and summer months of 2014, Tate’s fortunes on the baseball field took a decided upward turn. The closer’s role opened that spring and Tate wasted no time in showing Checketts it was a slot he would embrace and make it his raison d’être.

In 28 relief appearances as a sophomore last season, Tate finished 2-1 with 12 saves and allowed seven earned runs in 43 1/3 innings (1.45 ERA) with 46 strikeouts and 17 walks. Opponents hit .205 against him and he averaged 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings.

During the summer, he played for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team and recorded three saves in 11 appearances (11 1/3 innings) with a 0.79 ERA. It’s worth noting that the last three Gauchos to play for Team USA – Chris Valaika, Barry Zito and Erik Johnson – all reached the major leagues.

All of the success Tate enjoyed in 2014 led him to being named a 2015 preseason All-American by Perfect Game and at least two other media outlets – as a closer.

“I always say that he’s pretty much self-made,” Checketts said. “He’s gone out and found information and has been able to utilize it and improve. When he was a closer for us he was pretty much of a two-pitch guy – we knew he had the other two but we never really featured it out of the pen – but now he’s had games when he’s had all four pitches going; he’s really difficult to hit when he’s got all four of them going.”

TATE WAS ALWAYS A STARTER AT CLAREMONT HIGH SCHOOL and at the two Perfect Game tournaments at which he competed, but that was simply because most high school teams don’t have enough pitching depth to afford the luxury of specialization. It was also a matter of his high school and travel ball coaches realizing that it was important for Tate to get as many repetitions on the mound as possible.

In the summer of 2011, Tate played in both the PG WWBA 17u National Championship and the PG WWBA 16u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., with talent-laden Yak Baseball West; Tate’s fastball sat between 84-88 mph at both of those events.

His teammates on that Yak West club included Dominic Smith and John Paul Crawford, a pair of Perfect Game All-Americans that were selected in the first-round of the 2013 MLB June Amateur Draft by the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies, respectively; Shane Watson, a first-round compensation pick by the Phillies in 2012; and Kevin Franklin, a PG All-American selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the second-round of 2013 draft.

“I just had a ton of fun while I was down there and that’s a beneficial experience in itself,” Tate said. “But being around those guys, it was just a ton of fun and were just a bunch of kids playing baseball.”

Undrafted out of high school, Tate arrived on the UC Santa Barbara campus eager to learn as much as he could, both on the field and in the classroom – he is a communications major – and he hasn’t been disappointed. He credits the strong support system he enjoys from the coaching staff and his teammates.

“Those guys really believed in me and that just really made me want to work harder,” he said. “I worked harder and they were right there with me helping me along the way, and I’ve just really been fortunate with the hand I’ve been dealt from going to Santa Barbara.”

It has been a pretty good hand – maybe even Royal Flush good. His performance this season and his “electric repertoire” outlined by PG’s Rawnsley and Brown as him soaring up the draft boards in all 30 major league teams’ scouting departments. Or, as PG’s pre-draft scouting report concluded:

“Tate was viewed as a first-rounder heading into the season, more so in the middle of the first, until he made the transition to starter. Now showing the ability to maintain his elite stuff from the first pitch to the last, Tate’s name is often mentioned as a top-three overall pick and is on the shortlist as a 1-1 candidate.”

That kind of praise just rolls off Tate’s back, only because he knows nothing has ever been handed to him and he doesn't expect any handouts at this point in his career. He’s put in the work and the work is about to pay some big dividends.

“I try not to think about it that much,” he said of the draft. “I was watching the MLB Network the other day, and I saw manager (Clint) Hurdle from the Pirates, and I heard him say, ‘Be where your feet are in.’ When I heard him say that, I thought it was pretty cool, so when (the draft) starts to creep into my head a little bit, I just think to myself, ‘Be where your feet are in.’ That’s just how I go about every day now.”

Tate has successfully made the transition from the backend to the frontend of the Gauchos’ pitching staff, and everyone can pretty much agree that his feet are in a pretty good place right now.