Embracing the Beauty of the Unlikely

Among the many things I so desperately love about baseball is the occasional unlikeliness of it all.

Case in point? The three relievers who pitched for the Kansas City Royals in their Opening Day loss to the Orange County Angels.

Luke Hochevar started for the Royals, and pitched about as well as he can pitch, exiting the contest in the sixth inning having given up four runs. One of those runs was unearned, which left Hochevar with a 4.76 ERA which just somewhat coincidentally is almost exactly the pitcher Hochevar actually is. Hochevar's performance was both likely and unimpressive, which made it exceptionally uninteresting.

The hurlers who came after him, though?

No. 1 was Aaron Crow.

Three years ago, Crow was tabbed by the Washington Nationals with the ninth pick in the amateur draft. They offered him $3.5 million to sign. He didn't sign. A year later, having pitched in an independent league, Crow was chosen by the Royals with the 12th pick in the draft and offered $3 million to sign. He signed.

Crow began his career with the Royals in the Double-A Texas League last spring, and posted a 5.66 ERA in 22 starts. The Royals demoted him to Class A, where he posted a 5.93 ERA in seven starts.

This winter, Baseball America ranked him as the Royals' No. 9 prospect -- not bad, in this well-stocked organization -- but noted, "Crow will return to Double-A after flunking his first trial there in 2010."

Sure. Unless the Royals chose instead to shift Crow straight from flunking Double-A as a starter to pitching in the majors as a reliever. Which they did. It would be sort of a shame to give up on Crow as a starting pitcher already, but he did strike out three of the four Angels he faced in his major-league debut.

No. 2 was Nathan Adcock.

One point in Adcock's favor: He hasn't flunked Double-A. Of course, you can't flunk Double-A if you don't pitch in Double-A; prior to Thursday afternoon, Adcock had pitched professionally for five seasons without escaping Class A. Prior to Thursday afternoon, he'd always been a starting pitcher, with just an average fastball but a fine (Class A) curveball. When Baseball America made their list this winter, Adcock didn't rank among the Royals' top 31 prospects.

But the Royals grabbed Adcock from the Pirates in the Rule 5 draft in December; if they wanted to keep him, they would have to keep him on the 25-man roster. So they did. And so there he was, giving up two hits to the Angels but escaping without any damage done, thanks to a strong throw home by Jeff Francoeur.

Adcock probably has absolutely no business pitching before huge crowds in gigantic ballparks. Yet there he was, doing exactly that.

No. 3 was Tim Collins, easily the most unlikely of all.

Crow was a first-round draft pick. Adcock was a fifth-round draft pick. Collins was a there's-no-way-in-hell-we're-drafting-that-kid draft pick, which is to say he wasn't drafted. It's hard to get drafted when you stand maybe 67 inches tall in your baseball shoes.

The Blue Jays signed Collins after spotting him at a tryout camp. As the story goes, the Blue Jays were there to see a pitcher a full foot taller than Collins (the story doesn't say if they signed that big guy, too).

In his first full minor-league season -- this was three years ago -- Collins struck out 98 hitters in 68 innings. Since then, he's moved up the ladder slowly but steadily, and entered this spring having struck out 13 hitters per nine innings in his professional career. Last summer, the Blue Jays traded him to the Braves; three weeks later the Braves traded him to the Royals.

Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore hasn't made a great many canny trades during his tenure, but this one qualifies. The Braves got Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth for two months; the Royals got Tim Collins and a couple of other guys for six years (if they want them).

Upon joining the Royals' organization, Collins was dispatched to Triple-A for the first time and pitched well. That was only 20 innings, though, and they could have reasonably sent him back there for a bit more seasoning.

Before Collins threw his first pitch, I wondered to myself, "How does he do it? How does he generate the leverage to throw 95 miles an hour?"

And then he threw, and I knew: Lincecum.

Collins doesn't throw exactly like Lincecum, but I don't see how anyone could watch him without making the connection. Later, reading Collins' entry in Baseball America's Prospect Handbook, I discovered that Collins' nickname while pitching in Toronto's farm system was "Tim LinceCollins."

Three pitchers, all of them pitching in their first major-league game, each with any number of reasons for not pitching in the major leagues on this particular afternoon.

And yet there they were, pitching against some of the greatest hitters in the world, and pitching well enough.

Likely or not.

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