HOUSTON — Life has come full circle for Nate Eovaldi.
On Saturday, Eovaldi will take the mound for Game 2 of the American League Championship Series against the Astros. He will do so as the unquestioned staff ace of the Red Sox, a homecoming for a pitcher whose baseball roots are in Houston, whose baseball background connected him to a legendary Astros power pitcher, and whose professional career started, in a sense, in the same venue where he will aim to help get the Sox back to the World Series.
“It’s definitely special,” said Eovaldi.
Eovaldi went to Alvin High School, about 30 miles from Minute Maid Park and the same school the legendary Nolan Ryan attended before being taken in the 1965 draft. Eovaldi arrived as a hard thrower, but a growth spurt combined with a relentless work ethic and competitiveness soon distinguished him as a special talent.
The righthander never seemed satisfied with anything short of competitive excellence. His high school team had a ping-pong table in the locker room, on which the team’s assistant coach dominated his players.
“So Nate goes and buys a ping-pong table, sets it up in his garage, and just places it against the wall — no people, just half the table against the garage,” recalled Mike Rogers, Eovaldi’s high school coach. “About a week or so later, he came back and just smoked my assistant coach. That’s who he is. He’s going to compete. He’s going to win. If we say, ‘Run a mile today,’ he’s going to run two.”
It was in high school that Eovaldi became a constant presence in the weight room, leading to consistent, extraordinary gains in velocity. As a junior, recalled Eovaldi’s high school catcher Travis Snider, Eovaldi was topping out at 98 miles per hour. That created an inevitable reference point for comparison.
“Alvin is a small place. It’s not a hole in the wall, but it’s not a huge community,” said Snider. “Having one of the greatest pitchers of all time call Alvin home growing up, obviously it’s a conversation piece. And then when Nathan starts throwing 96-98 . . . It was really cool to hear his name in the same sentence as a Hall of Famer like [Ryan].”
Yet Eovaldi’s high school development derailed when he blew out his elbow as a junior. Undaunted, Eovaldi flew through his rehab program and was once again pitching in his senior spring — about six and a half months after surgery.
His desire to compete bordered on self-destructive. The idea of helping his team win came before self-preservation.
“We had a playoff game against a rival Houston school. Several teams flew in their scouting directors to watch him. He only threw 92 and they were all disappointed. But it was a three-game series,” recalled Rogers. “He threw a complete game, won the game. Game 2, the following day, we’re struggling, and Nate comes up and says, ‘Coach, put me in, I can finish this.’ I said, ‘Are you crazy? You just pitched yesterday. I’m not putting you in.’ So he gets his dad who says, ‘Coach, it’s OK, go ahead and use him.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not using him.’ But that’s the way he was.”
Eovaldi’s progression back from Tommy John was incomplete by the time the 2008 draft arrived. He showed velocity that stood out compared to other high schoolers and seemed likely to make an even bigger jump forward, but while he flashed a breaking ball, it remained crude. He wasn’t at the top of any draft boards and seemed likely to enroll at Texas A&M.
But the Dodgers viewed him as a perfect target for just outside the top 10 rounds. A pitcher with upside, but signability questions.
“He had that special kind of arm,” said Logan White, then the Dodgers scouting director. “He reminded me of a young colt that you see, it’s like, oh my gosh, when he fills out, and when he gets to where he’s going to be, he is going to be some kind of impressive.”
Yet White was even more impressed with other attributes.
“Of all the players that I’ve ever drafted and signed, he’s the best makeup guy ever,” said White. “There’s just an aura about him. The things that you look for in a guy when you say they got a great makeup, he had those ingredients from day one.”
With the Dodgers in Houston in early July 2008, White invited Eovaldi to throw a bullpen session at Minute Maid.
Eovaldi had already pitched in the ballpark before in high school tournaments and events. But this opportunity — while being watched by LA skipper Joe Torre and bench coach Don Mattingly, and getting a chance to meet players such as Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley who’d been drafted by White — was different.
“I was so overwhelmed at the time,” recalled Eovaldi. “It was awesome.”
White sat down with Eovaldi and his family at a restaurant across from Minute Maid. He agreed to sign for $250,000.
In some ways, aside from the fact that he’s emerged as one of the hardest throwers in MLB, the path that Eovaldi has taken from that point more than 13 years ago would have been difficult to predict. He’s developed command of a five-pitch mix, becoming far more complete as a pitcher than anyone would have imagined. He’s not merely a power arm, but a standout with the tools to match his strengths against any hitter.
“It blows me away,” said White. “It’s a testament to his makeup and intellect, the person he is, that he’s going to find a way.”
Yet in other ways, he is very much the pitcher he was in Alvin. A phenomenal competitor whose spikes-on, all-in approach to the 2018 and 2021 postseasons will have him feeling very much at home on the mound Saturday afternoon.
“To see him there,” said Rogers, “is what dreams are made of.”