by Steven Libowitz, provided by the Santa Barbara Sentinel
Tate Delivers the Right Stuff
Santa Barbara isn’t exactly known as a baseball town. Sure, there was a minor league team or two based here for nearly three decades – including a long tenancy by a Single A affiliate in the California League – but the Santa Barbara Dodgers folded up the tent nearly half a century ago in 1967, and the Laguna Ball Park stadium was torn down not long after. Even then, attendance averaged only 225 spectators per game, according to a Wikipedia entry.
So it’s understandable that only a few more souls turn out on game days for UCSB baseball at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium, even on the day Dillon Tate pitches. But they should.
Because Tate might just be the best athlete ever to set foot on the soil out at UCSB. He’s definitely the school’s first player ever to be in serious consideration as the top selection in Major League Baseball’s amateur draft, which takes place next month.
The Claremont, California, native – now 21 – is a fearless competitor in possession of a lethal arm. The right-hander has already taken a no-hitter into the seventh inning or beyond twice this year, and while his 6-3 record as of this writing belies his talent level as the Gauchos often don’t hit well when he’s on the mound, his 1.47 ERA (earned-run average) is one of the nation’s best. He has a fastball that often exceeds 95 mph, and a slider and change-up that keeps the hitters off-balance, resulting in a strikeout ratio of more than one batter per inning.
Add to that a 6-foot-2 inch, 200-pound physique, and the make-up of a much older ballplayer and it’s easy to see why dozens of professional scouts show up every time he takes the mound, aiming their radar guns his way, and shaking their heads when another 97-mph heater smacks the catcher’s mitt or a sneaky fast slider makes a hitter’s knees buckle.
Tate was UCSB’s star closer last spring but was stretched out over the fall and winter, and made the rotation due to a teammate’s injury just before the season started in March. Now he’s set to capitalize on that conversion to a much more valuable role as the draft approaches.
Keith Law, ESPN’s baseball scouting guru and a fan, is still touting Tate as a potential pick at the number-one slot, and a sure first-rounder pending an injury or blow-up, having cited the pitcher’s “premium stuff and impressive physicality.” Closer to home, Tom Myers, the area’s scouting supervisor for the Chicago Cubs and a former assistant and associate coach at UCSB, said during a recent Tate outing that the pitcher is everything as advertised.
“He’s got a very special arm, plus a four-pitch repertoire, and he’s a very athletic right-hander – and there’s not a lot of them in this year’s draft,” said Myers, who lives on the Mesa. “He’s been showing a lot of control and command – the ability to throw strikes with all his pitches against quality competition, coming up with big pitches in big counts. He has a lot of tools. It’s major-league stuff.”
Andrew Checketts, the UCSB baseball coach who recruited Tate to the seaside campus three years ago, has also been mightily impressed.
“He’s definitely got a big league arm,” said Checketts, who coached current Red Sox pitcher Joe Kelly at UC Riverside several years ago. “We thought from Day One when he came in here that he would throw very hard. The stuff that’s developed for him is the ability to throw off-speed pitches for strikes and do all the things that have turned him into a complete pitcher.”
Indeed, the only one who isn’t singing Tate’s praises is the pitcher himself, who keeps his head down and speaks with the soft voice and quiet demeanor of a man going about his work, not a teenager about to potentially earn a multi-million dollar paycheck who is being heaped with praise all over baseball and sports websites.
“I don’t read anything about me on the Internet. That helps a whole lot,” Tate said as he ambled out back onto the field after a game in early April, where before being interrupted by a reporter he was about to help rebuild the landing spot next to the pitching rubber where his cleats has dug out a hole – the kind of duty you can be sure he’ll be relieved of a few months from now after signing a pro contract. “I don’t seek out anything. The only thing I look at is footage of me throwing to learn what I can. What keeps me focused is knowing that I still have a job to do. I just want to go out and win the game with my buddies.”
It’s his intense focus and ability to bear down that has added to Tate’s cachet as a pitcher well beyond most of his peers in maturity, and what the professionals call “makeup.” Even when errors have put his team in a whole and a loss is imminent, Tate just fires another fastball or slings a slider past another batter.
“I just need to keep a clear head and not quit when I’m out there,” he said. “When stuff goes sideways offensively or defensively, it’s my job to stay focused and keep attacking the hitters. I stay away from thinking ‘I have to do this or that.’ You want to think as little as possible when you’re on the mound. Just focus up and fire the ball. ”
Tate does ‘fess up to a pre-game routine that would seem out of character elsewhere: he listens to high-energy rap or hip-hop to amp up the intensity.
“I’m a different person off the mound, so I need that extra little boost before I come out here,” he explained. “So it’s got to be something very aggressive to get in the right mindset.”
Still, Tate is aware that his life will almost certainly change drastically by the end of June, when the team that drafts him offers seven figures to ink him to his first pro contract. Has it sunk in?
“Not to that extent,” he said. “I’m just having a good time coming out here and playing baseball, because that won’t last forever. I just try to hold on to the days I do have and try to make the most of them.”
Photo captions: Gaunchos’ righthander Dillon Tate, 21, stands and delivers (Photo by Tony Mastres/UCSB).