Never tell Tim Cate he can't do something. Never use the word "no." Don't play him in 2K or The Show baseball video games, and definitely don't try to hit his curveball. Just don't. It's not worth it. He's going to win, and you're going to lose.
Connecticut head coach Jim Penders remembers when Cate called him in December 2013 about participating in one of UConn's indoor workouts. "I need Tommy John surgery," said Cate, then a junior at Cheney Technical High in Manchester, Conn. "But I want to come do the camp."
Penders told him "no" emphatically. But Cate came anyway.
With a torn UCL, the diminutive, rail-thin lefthander touched 87 mph--several ticks higher than the UConn coaches had ever seen him throw. And his upper-70s curveball was far more advanced than is typical for his age. UConn committed to him on the spot.
Cate had surgery on his left arm a month later--yet, somehow, he still played for Cheney Tech that spring.
"We noticed late in the season, we were seeing his name in the paper and in the game reports online, and we couldn't figure it out," Penders said. "He was hitting third and playing center field. We were in a panic."
It turned out Cate had decided to play that entire season righthanded.
Not even taking his left arm away could stop him.
"He's completely ambidextrous," Penders said. "He can throw it over 90 (mph) righthanded, too. He really is a freak of nature in many ways. He's very talented and very athletic, and he's very driven, and that's usually a very good combination to have."
Cate can will himself into doing almost anything. For him, touching 93 mph with his non-dominant hand is just "screwing around." He knows his left arm is his ticket to pro ball.
Now entering his junior season with the Huskies, Cate has gone from a soft-tossing, low-80s pitcher studying HVAC at a technical high school to fronting a Division I rotation.
He has pitched in back-to-back summers for Team USA's Collegiate National Team--and dominated, striking out 20 in 12 innings this past summer. And he ranks No. 27 on BA's top 200 draft prospects. No longer scraping 85 mph, the 6-foot, 187-pound Cate sits in the low 90s and runs it up to 94 lefthanded, and his power 12-to-6 curve is among the best secondary pitches in the draft class. Even more, Cate brings a domineering presence to the mound, hardened by the constant scrutiny he faces from evaluators about being undersized. Cate doesn't let those outside doubts shake his confidence.
"He knows he's better than you," UConn pitching coach Josh MacDonald said. "I think he knows that, but I also think he really enjoys proving it."
"Take it one pitch at a time," is one of baseball's most hackneyed phrases--it's the first bullet on the first page of The Coachspeak Handbook. Yet there's nothing cliché about the way Cate internalizes it. He exhibits an unusual amount of focus on the mound--to the point where his coaches have wondered if it's possible to be too locked in. They've started calling him The Machine, as though he's hardwired to focus only on the task at hand.
"My parents like to say that I'm a little irresponsible when it comes to planning things and planning ahead," said Cate, laughing. "But I just live in the moment, and that helps me in pitching."
That short memory serves Cate well, because he can attack and attack and attack. His numbers speak for themselves: He has averaged 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings in his two years at UConn, going 9-4, 3.02 with 203 strikeouts to 58 walks in 158 innings. Still, his hyper-focused, inward-looking approach has its downsides, as well.
Penders has gotten upset with Cate at times when the pitcher fails to acknowledge a sparkling defensive play behind him or when he's the last person to congratulate a teammate for driving in a run.
"He's not at all selfish," Penders said. "He just has that tunnel vision."
MacDonald added that sometimes, when Cate doesn't have his best stuff, that tunnel vision can cause him to spiral into a bit of a mental funk, even if the Huskies are winning.
"That's really the last step of his game," MacDonald said. "If he can just fight through that overly focused barrier, he'll end up being the best pitcher we've ever had."
Considering some of the arms that have come through Storrs, that's extraordinarily high praise. As a freshman in 2016, Cate pitched behind another big-name lefty in Anthony Kay, whom the Mets selected in the first round that June. But Cate assumed the ace role after Kay's departure, and he'll reprise that role this season. Another stud lefty, Mason Feole, will pitch behind him, forming one of the better one-two punches in the country on a team that is primed to return to regionals.
Cate is confident in the Huskies and rightfully confident in himself. But his coaches won't let him get too comfortable.
"Mason throws harder than him by maybe one mile per hour," MacDonald said, "and I always say something (to Cate) like, 'You're the second-best lefty on the team.' "
In the past, that sort of prodding would eat at Cate. But he's learning to celebrate his teammates and expand his focus without softening his edge.
"I kind of know better now," Cate said, laughing. "Mac's gonna have to think of something else to say."
He could always try the word "no."