A raggedy image flashed in Dillon Tate’s mind when he learned about last year’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game in a text message from his mother.
Shane Bieber of the Cleveland Indians — his former UCSB teammate — had been just voted most valuable player in the showcase of baseball’s brightest stars.
“I’m thinking to myself about how far we’d come,” he began, “about how it doesn’t seem that long ago when I was with these guys and we were sweating outside in our gray pants, with holes in our socks and T-shirts.”
He’s become the latest Rags-to-Riches Gaucho to reach baseball’s biggest stage. Tate, the only UCSB player ever selected in the first round of the MLB Amateur Draft, has asserted himself since the Baltimore Orioles took him off the disabled list last month. In five relief appearances, he’s stuck out 10 batters and allowed just three hits and three runs in 9 2/3 innings for an earned run average of 2.79.
“It’s great to see him looking like the old Dillon,” Gaucho coach Andrew Checketts said.
Last month was an august one indeed for former UCSB pitchers. Bieber won six games as well as the American League Pitcher of the Month Award.
He, Tate, Justin Jacome and Domenic Mazza were Checketts’ aces in the hole in 2015 when the Gauchos pitched their way to a top-16 seed and the right to play host to the NCAA Regional at Lake Elsinore.
“Bieber has been flying the flag for the Gauchos for sure,” Checketts began, “but both he and Dillon have been throwing on the same days the last two weeks and have allowed no runs combined in 17 innings.”
They were both flying under the radar when Checketts recruited them out of high school. Only two of his four starting pitchers in 2015 — plus two of the nine in his batting order — were even on scholarship that season. And yet, 36 Gauchos have been drafted by Major League Baseball in the five years since then, tying UCSB with UCLA for most on the West Coast.
“Tate, Bieber, Jacome, Andrew Calica — none of those guys even made their Area Code teams in high school,” Checketts pointed out. “They weren’t highly recruited, but they came in here with chips on their shoulders and were a little bit more open to being coached.
“It’s easier for a school like UCLA to get commitments. They’ll get eight of the 10 kids they offer. We get four of 10, so we’ve got to work twice as hard.”
Their work coaching them has paid off, as well. Ten Gauchos were drafted after that 2015 season, and 10 more were chosen last year, tying UCSB for fourth-most in the nation. Eight of those 10 Gauchos were taken in the first 20 rounds of the 2019 draft — the second-most of any program.
“I was one of those people who really benefited from the college experience,” Tate said. “Some guys are ready to go out of high school, and I applaud those guys because it really does take a mature and talented player to be able to make that jump out of high school at 17, 18 years of age.”
Tate, who posted a win-loss record of 8-5 for UCSB in 2015, struck out 111 batters to rank sixth all-time for the Gauchos. His ERA of 2.26 put him eighth in the record books and earned him Louisville Slugger All-America honors.
His journey in pro baseball, however, has been a dizzying series of twists and turns. The Texas Rangers took him as the No. 4 pick of the 2015 MLB Amateur Draft but, just a year later, traded him with two others to the New York Yankees for Carlos Beltran.
After two years in the Yankee system, Tate was dealt again to the Orioles for Zack Britton.
“I struggled when I first got to pro ball, and it kind of taught me to dig a little bit deeper,” he said. “I was getting pulled in so many different directions as far as teaching goes and it got me a little bit out of whack. I needed help to get back on track.
“One of the things I learned is that you’re going to be your best teacher, and so are your teammates. Once I learned that, I kind of settled in a little bit more in what it is I do, and what I do well. I was able to build a bit of momentum for myself.”
Tate’s big-league debut with the Orioles last year was a microcosm of his pro journey. He hit San Diego’s Greg Garcia with a pitch, gave up an infield single to Manny Machado, and then craned his neck to watch Eric Hosmer launch his next pitch over the right-field wall. He’d faced three batters — and given up three runs.
“I remember looking at my catcher and thinking, ‘Man, I’ve got to get on it right here or I’m coming out of this game,’ and I didn’t want that for my very first big-league appearance,” Tate said. “And I turned it up a bit.”
He struck out both Hunter Renfroe and Wil Myers, and then finished his debut by retiring Luis Urias on a fly ball to centerfield.
“That’s when I realized, ‘OK, I can do this,’” Tate said.
His 2020 season was delayed first by the coronavirus pandemic and then by a line drive hit by Pat Valaika — younger brother of former Gaucho Chris Valaika — during an intrasquad scrimmage in late June.
“I threw him a 3-2 sinker inside and he shot it back up the middle,” Tate recalled. “I couldn’t get out of the way and it hit my right elbow.”
The contusion put him on the 10-day disabled list. He was then sent down to Baltimore’s alternate site in Bowie, Md. – but his spirits remained up.
“Being in a negative mindset wasn’t going to serve me or lead me in the direction I want to go,” Tate said. “All I could really do was stay positive with it and keep working.”
The Orioles activated him on Aug. 17 and had him pitch 2 1/3 innings that night against Toronto. He allowed just one hit — a two-run home run by Cavan Biggio.
He’s given up just two hits and one run in the 7 1/3 innings since then, which included a hitless inning of relief on Friday against his old club, the Yankees.
“I wouldn’t change any of the parts of this so far — the struggles and failures that I’ve had,” Tate said. “It’s what’s helped me get to this point.”
And that point of view now is from a Major League pitcher’s mound.