By Elliot Chester
Collin McHugh’s third pitch as a major league baseball player was not a bad one, a four-seam 91-mile-per-hour fastball that tailed away from Charlie Blackmon, a slap-hitting nobody who had just two hits all season entering the late August game. But Blackmon, recently installed as the Colorado Rockies’ starting right fielder due to a rash of injuries, stayed with the pitch and sliced the ball past the jutting field-level seats of Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, and into the left field corner for an easy double.
In a seat halfway down the first baseline and about 30 rows up from the diamond, Adam Cantrell experienced an odd sensation: release. “That relieved a little bit of tension,” remembers Cantrell, McHugh’s first cousin and former coach at Providence Christian Academy, where McHugh first began to show flashes of the potential whose limits are still not clear. “It was like, ‘OK, don’t have to worry about the no-hitter anymore.’”
McHugh, oblivious to his cousin’s butterflies, glanced briefly, expressionlessly, at the scoreboard. Then he went back to work.
His task was daunting, perhaps more so than he or anybody else realized at that moment. Outfitted in a titanium necklace, a uniform that looked just a shade baggy and an all-but-nonexistent pedigree, 25-year-old Collin McHugh was to become responsible for keeping the spiraling Mets from reaching the nadir of a miserable season that sunny summer day. First, though, he had to get out of the inning.
After Blackmon went to third on a bunt, McHugh got two quick strikes on Jordan Pacheco, ran the count full and struck him out looking on a low fastball. Four pitches later, the menacing Carlos Gonzalez swung through another heater to end the top of the first. “A nice escape by Collin McHugh in his first big league inning,” said Mets play-by-play man Gary Cohen. He sounded slightly surprised.
One inning later, Cantrell realized what the rest of the sparse crowd (announced at 22,544, though the video suggests that the actual number was about half of that) most likely had yet to: that his cousin was pitching the game of his life.
“Second inning was when I knew, ‘OK, he’s really dealing today, and he could do something special,’” recalled Cantrell. “I’m just sitting there going, ‘Holy cow, I can’t believe I’m sitting in this park, watching my cousin play, and he’s absolutely just going nuts.’”
By the time McHugh had finished going nuts, he had allowed no runs on just two hits, Blackmon’s double and an irrelevant single by D.J. LeMahieu in the third, while racking up nine strikeouts in seven innings of work. As the 6-2, 195-pound righty strolled off the mound after getting Wilin Rosario to whiff at a tight 12-to-6 payoff curveball to end the seventh on his 100th pitch of the afternoon, the camera flashed to a shot of his parents, Scott and Teresa, hugging joyfully in the stands.
As he crossed the first base line for the final time that afternoon, McHugh working on a wad of chewing gum and flexing his left arm, betrayed no sign of elation or even recognition that he had just become only the third pitcher in Mets history to throw at least seven shutout innings in his first-ever start.
“McHugh’s retired ten in a row!” exclaimed Cohen, an entirely different kind of surprise now flooding his voice. “Seventh inning stretch, no score. What a debut!”
If Collin Alexander McHugh’s life were a movie, it would have ended right then, on August 23, 2012 at approximately 3:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, climaxing with a near-perfect moment to cap off a near-perfect performance.
But of course, the movie did not end. The moment did not last. The present slipped into the past and was replaced by a harsher reality. But now that, too, is past.
The future, meanwhile, is murky. But that’s nothing new to Collin McHugh.
Mozart began writing music when he was just five years old. Collin McHugh, however, did not throw a single pitch until he was ten, when his Little League coach gathered his team together and held an open tryout for the position that had heretofore been the realm of soft-tossing coaches.
“I was a big Braves fan,” says McHugh, who grew up about a half-hour’s drive from Atlanta’s Turner Field. “At that point in time in the ‘90s it was the Braves’ show with Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine. I loved them and I wanted to be them. I thought, ‘Well, how about pitching?’ I did and, well, I enjoyed it.”
On the field, McHugh’s talent for control quickly became apparent as he became a yearly fixture on the all-star teams that took the small field in Alpharetta. Still, there was a problem. “I was short and fat and I didn’t throw very hard,” remembers McHugh, who almost didn’t make Providence Christian’s junior varsity squad as a 5’4”, 170-lb. 8th-grader.
The next year, McHugh, who eventually grew eight inches to an even six feet by the time he graduated from Providence Christian, worked his way onto the varsity team but could not get into a game. One day, the Stars made the five-minute trek across town to take on rival Greater Atlantic Christian, a powerhouse squad that would take runner-up in the state championship the following season. The Spartans beat the living tar out of Providence Christian that day, and as the innings wore on and the runs piled up, Cantrell decided to give a new pitcher a try.
Moments later, Collin McHugh’s first pitch as a varsity high school baseball player was blasted for a home run.
What makes the moment stand out in Cantrell’s mind all these years later was McHugh’s reaction. “He just took the ball from the umpire, stood back up there on the mound and was ready to go again,” remembers Cantrell. “For that to be your first experience, and to act like, ‘OK, well, let’s just go after the next guy,’ was pretty spectacular.”
McHugh finished the inning without incident, then tossed a few more decent innings in similar mop-up fashion over the course of the season.
Next season, he was starting and as junior, he was the staff ace. By the time his senior year rolled around, he was the star pitcher and power-hitting first baseman of a Providence Christian team that made the state playoffs for the first time during his tenure.
In the summer before his senior fall, McHugh began to pursue his dream of pitching for a big-time program like the University of Georgia. His hopes were dashed, however, when he attended his first college showcase and found 15 radar guns trained on him; none of them registered a fastball at more than 90 miles-per-hour. “I was a righty, I went to a small school. I wasn’t a very impressive physical specimen either. I was pretty normal across the board,” says McHugh.
Georgia Tech offered him a slot as a preferred walk-on. Davidson offered him a higher SAT-score threshold than he could achieve. Georgia offered him nothing.
Among the 15 radar guns at that showcase tryout, however, was Josh Hopper, then the pitching coach for tiny Berry College, an NAIA (now DIII) school about 90 minutes along the road from McHugh’s hometown. Where the radar guns recorded only insufficient velocity, Hopper thought he caught a glimpse of something else. “When Hop saw me there, he said [to himself], ‘I think I see something in this kid,’ recalls McHugh. “He had me come up on an official visit, I saw the campus. Within a couple of months I had made my decision: that’s where I wanted to go. I always appreciate that he was able to see someone that maybe somebody else wasn’t and really give me a shot.”
Whatever Josh Hopper saw, David Beasley saw it too. A former All-American third baseman and head coach of the Berry Vikings, Beasley knew he had a talented pitcher on his hands.
“Ball just came out of his hand so well,” remembers Beasley, more than a hint of nostalgia creeping into his voice. “You could project him pretty good, you know what I’m saying? He wasn’t done growing, you knew he wasn’t very strong at first physically, and you just knew that if he got into a good program and worked, you knew he had a ton of upside.”
According to McHugh, Beasley, “doesn’t love doing interviews with people.” When it comes to Collin McHugh, however, Beasley could talk all day.
“One of the things we always try to do is recruit great kids and he’s as good a kid as we’ve ever had,” says Beasley. “To be honest with you, he’s just a magnificent kid. We knew he would fit in well as a young man, we knew he’d fit in well with what we wanted to do here at Berry, and we knew that that’s the kind of young man we wanted to bring in.”
McHugh became a mainstay in Berry’s rotation right away and went 5-2 in his first season. He also occasionally caught a glimpse of Marlin McPhail, a regional scout for the Mets and a good friend of Beasley, who also used to work in the Mets’ organization. But McHugh recalls no real extended conversations or contacts of any kind with ex-backstop who caught Dwight Gooden’s first professional start and has spent the last 20 years scouring the southeastern U.S. for premier pitching talent. “Keep getting better at what you do,” is all McHugh remembers hearing from the man.
Meanwhile, McHugh’s career arc at Berry followed a curious trajectory: though he led the team in innings as a sophomore and a junior, his ERA rose steadily each season, from 3.98 to 4.19 to 4.67 in what McHugh described as a “mediocre” 2008 campaign. Discouraged, he absentmindedly followed that year’s amateur draft in June more out of habit than expectation.
Then the phone rang. It was the Mets.
To be continued….
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This Fan Shot was contributed by Elliot Chester. Have something you want to say about the Mets? Share your opinions with over 15 thousand Mets fans who read this site daily. Send your Fan Shot to GetMetsmerized@aol.com. Or ask us about becoming a regular contributor.