BOSTON -- They say luck is where opportunity meets preparation? Tim Collins can attest to a thing or two about that.
Four summers ago, the scrappy lefthander from Worcester's west side was just a 5-foot-5, 130-pound firecracker coming off a ridiculous senior season for Division 2 state power Worcester Tech: 7-0, 165 strikeouts in 75 innings, just 10 hits allowed, and a no-hitter over Auburn in the D2 Central Mass final.
Still, even with a mid-80s fastball and a sharp breaking ball, college recruiters and regional scouts couldn't get over his Lilliputian frame. Only the Lincoln, R.I.-based Community College of Rhode Island stepped up with an offer; and with no other options, the Knights it was.
Sometime in late July that summer, Collins was set to make a relief appearance for his Main South American Legion squad against intra-city rival East Side, at Tivnan Field. Then-Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi, a lifelong Worcester resident, showed up incognito to scout East Side's prized ace, current University of Lousivlle redshirt-junior Keith Landers. But Collins stole the show, striking out 12 batters in four innings of relief. A few days later, Collins threw 20 pitches for Ricciardi in a private bullpen session at Assumption College.
That was a Friday. By Monday, he was signing a minor-league contract with a $10,000 bonus and throwing for Toronto in the Gulf Coast League. He's now a reliever for the Kansas City Royals.
"Honestly, I've seen him so many times, and it's still so tough, I can't thank him enough for just giving me the opportunity," Collins said.
"He had a good arm," recalled Ricciardi, who now works as a special assistant with the Mets. "He was very athletic, the ball came out of his hand real well, he had a really good sign of a breaking ball, a little bit of a changeup, too. He was very athletic on the mound, with good arm speed. By my eyeball test, he was throwing 87-88 miles per hour.
"Here's a kid who didn't have a lot of options. I wanted to sign him right away. It was really being in the right place at the right time."
'With his makeup he's about 6-6'
As one of the youngest major league relievers -- he turns 22 next month -- Collins is quickly becoming a fascinating case study in baseball mechanics. He is one of only a handful of players 5-foot-7 or under to make the majors in the last half-century.
Like an undersized hockey goaltender, Collins stretches out to make himself big on the mound. And like two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum -- a fellow sub-6-footer he calls his idol -- Collins has an elongated, efficient delivery that consistently produces maximum results.
Starting from the third-base side of the mound, he winds up with his back to the plate, holding the ball at his left chest area, pausing for a split-second before finishing with a high kick and extending toward the batter from a high arm slot that produces a steep downhill plane.
"This might sound a little crazy, but with his makeup he's about 6-6," said Royals manager Ned Yost. "So size doesn't matter."
Scouts love his fastball for the velocity -- he routinely taps the 91- to 93-mph range, and reportedly hit 97 earlier this year against Texas -- and for the late life he applies to it. Collins has become more confident in his 81-mph change-up, as well. But the fun part is watching the break on his 75-mph curveball, a 12-to-6 drop with a sharp dip as it comes across the plate.
"It's nasty. I mean, it's nasty," reliever Nathan Adcock said of Collins' curve. "Good pitches, he's got really good stuff."
Collins used all three pitches to whip through the minors in four seasons, striking out 329 batters in 323 innings, holding batters to a .179 average, for 13.3 strikeouts per nine innings.
When he was traded twice in two weeks last July, first to the Braves then to Kansas City, Collins saw it as an opening. With a shortage of lefties in the system, he had a good shot at making the squad.
Immediately, he impressed the Royals staff with his athleticism.
"We did our homework on him," Yost said. "When I saw him in spring training, everything we talked about and everything I heard about was true. He's very athletic, got a lot of confidence in his abilities, got three quality pitches. He's fit right in since the first minute I've seen him."
Said pitching coach Bob McClure, "When you watch him, for instance just shagging in the outfield, he looks like an outfielder. He's just so strong. It's extraordinary, it's fun to watch."
Since that serendipitous meeting with Ricciardi, Collins has grown 2 inches and put on roughly 40 pounds, with the help of Hudson-based strength trainer Eric Cressey. Known for some unique, personalized workouts aimed at maximizing core and arm strength without sacrificing flexibility, some of his most notable clients in recent years include Kevin Youkilis, and Auburn native and 2011 Blue Jays first-round pick Tyler Beede.
During offseasons at Cressey's warehouse facility in the east side of Hudson, Collins spends his days and nights hanging out while pulling off some wild feats -- single-leg extensions with 300 pounds on his back, testing at a 41-inch vertical leap, running full-speed into a crash wall and getting his waist 8 feet off the ground. The list goes on, some of it documented on YouTube.
"Tim's a strong kid. People don't realize that, pound for pound, he throws around some good weight," Cressey said. "We've seen him do some crazy stuff. He's a near 40-inch vertical jumper. He has a lot of athleticism, and really what it comes down to is there's no energy leaks along the way. He transfers weight very efficiently from his lower half to his upper half."
Collins labors quick on the mound, and is just as quick getting to infield choppers.
"It's not even close, how fast he is coming off the mound," McClure said. "There was one, I think down the first base line, that he got ... I mean, like a cat. Very quick."
A long way from Walworth Street
Collins is walking off the Fenway grass back to the visitors' dugout following batting practice, and a familiar face sticks out among the handful of autograph hounds nearby.
"You've come a long way from Walworth Street!" shouts Mark Chanson, his 60-year-old lifelong neighbor. Collins' eyes light up as he scrambles to find a baseball to sign, and Chanson tosses him a ball point pen.
Moments later his former high school coach, Ron Silvestre, jumps onto the grass for a photo op and describes the scene as "just surreal."
"I always thought he had a high ceiling, but I had trouble convincing people otherwise because of his size," Silvestre said. "You know, it's just, the scouts were afraid to bring him to the GMs because of his size. But fortunately, J.P. Ricciardi saw the talent in him, and had the guys work him out and sign him.
"He overlooked his size because he has the heart of a lion. He doesn't know he's small. He plays his best in the big games. I always thought he could do something, wasn't sure major leagues, but I was sure he had potential to play professional baseball."
Monday night, in the bottom of the seventh, a childhood dream came true. Collins raced out to the mound nonchalantly, brushed off the rubber, gripped the rosin bag for a moment, walked a semi-circle around the mound and then took a deep breath. His first appearance at Fenway went 1-2-3; he jammed Carl Crawford and Josh Reddick, and watched Jarrod Saltalamacchia turn back his 92-mph heat into a broken-bat 5-3.
"It was kinda awkward running out there," Collins would say the next day. "Like, I don't think I should be here. But once I got out there it was baseball again, I had a job to do, and my number-one priority was to get three outs."
The next night, Collins was called in to start the bottom of the eighth and promptly heaved a first-pitch fastball that Jason Varitek crushed over the Green Monster for his sixth home run of the year. Collins then rung up the next batter, Reddick, who whiffed at a fastball over the middle of the plate.
Collins calmly exhaled, and put up a series of one's for the inning -- one run, one walk, one homer, one strikeout -- before ending with an Adrian Gonzalez groundout to second.
More than the downhill trajectory, more than the sharp curveball, more than the athleticism, this is what they love about Collins: his aggressiveness, triggered both by fearlessness and a short memory.
It's why people barely touched his mechanics coming up. "A couple years ago, 2009, was the first time he'd ever watched himself, and it was like, 'Get out of here, don't even try'," Cressey laughed.
It's why they called him up to the opening-day roster, why the Royals aren't panicking at his high walk ratio so far, and why they're not concerned about him racking up too many innings (through Wednesday, he had 41 strikeouts and 37 walks in 49 innings).
"Being traded twice, I looked at it as a positive thing," Collins said. "That meant teams wanted me, and I knew the opportunity I had with the Royals. They were short on lefties in the big leagues, and Ned wanted two or three lefties in the bullpen. Obviously I was in good shape -- I take pride in that every year, going into spring training in good shape -- all I had to do was go out there and do what I do and I'd have a good shot at making the team."
Said Adcock, "He's a little bulldog. He gets after it, he's in your face. Like I said, no matter who's in the box, he's going to attack you with all he has."
Some things can't be measured
McClure can relate to what Collins went through. A week before pitching for the College of San Mateo in the 1973 California Junior College State Championship, a Dodgers scout who was interested in drafting him passed away. In the championship game, McClure struck out a few, walked 12, but picked up the win in a 1-0 victory.
After the game, McClure -- who already found himself hearing complaints about his height and throwing ability -- was told by a different Dodgers scout that they weren't going to draft him.
"And it drove me for 19 years in the major leagues, that guy," McClure said.
As luck would have it, sometime during year 17 (with the Cardinals in 1991), McClure was back home in his native San Francisco getting a tattoo. While he was waiting for a friend to finish up on his ink, McClure went to the pub around the corner for a bite to eat. The bartender, a friend from baseball, informed McClure that in the back of the restaurant was that very Dodgers scout -- gray-haired, frail, somewhere in the ballpark of 75 years old, having a meal with his wife.
McClure went over to the table and introduced himself. The scout "nearly fell out of his seat," he recalled.
"He just about comes flying out of his chair, 'Oh man, did I make a mistake,' " McClure said. "I said 'You know what, you didn't make a mistake, you just didn't measure my heart. ... I offered to buy him and his wife a drink, and got rid of all of that.
"It drove me, so, hell yeah, I can understand [Collins' story]. And you know what? It's driven some guys to be really, really good."
A week before last June's Major League Baseball draft commenced, Red Sox scouting director Amiel Sawdaye was asked about the projectability of pitching prospects from the Northeast, and noted their dedication, saying, "We were just watching video of a kid throwing in the snow, so that tells you what some of these kids go through."
For McClure, a kid like Collins fits the mold.
"I think one thing I do see from a lot of northerners is attitude. They don't take [expletive] from no one," he said. "Good thing. Seriously, you know, good thing. I see attitude a lot. Now, do they go harder or more balls-out than [kids in other regions], I dunno. I don't notice that any different from anyone that's got that kind of energy. But they got attitude. There's a chip on their shoulders. It's a good thing."
So, all that said, looking at the body of work, can an undersized scrapper like Collins hang around in the show?
"Hell yeah, no question," McClure said. "Guys like that, the only thing that would ever stop him is health. He stays healthy, and he's a lefty, he'll be around for a long time. It's pretty cool, pretty exciting, a guy like that."
He added, cracking a smile, "Pretty unusual, you gotta admit."