A year removed from going undrafted following a four-year career at the University of Cincinnati, Ryan Atkinson made the most important pitch of his career without even throwing a ball.
"I sent an e-mail to the Frontier League, and they contacted me the next day to invite me to a tryout about three hours away," the D-backs prospect said.
Atkinson was delighted to be given a second chance at a baseball career, but the tryout with the independent league was just five days out and he hadn't thrown a baseball in quite some time.
"[The tryout] was the first time I picked up a ball in over a year -- since my last college game," he added. "I was kind of mentally shut down from baseball. Every college baseball player has the feeling of getting their hopes up to get drafted, and not getting selected was mentally challenging because you feel like nobody wants you. But I never really told myself that I was done playing."
After getting passed over by every team during the 2015 MLB Draft, Atkinson, who was studying to become a dietitian, thought it best to move on with his life and pursue a career outside the chalk. He took a job at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center as a patient services manager.
"I kind of just moved on with my life," Atkinson explained. "My background is in fitness and nutrition, and that's the kind of lifestyle I like to live. I was staying in shape and working out, but I started my working career for 13 months."
That's when Atkinson began to feel the game pull him back. He had just watched the 2016 Draft and saw some familiar faces get selected and felt that he could compete with them. So he pitched in the Frontier League and even if he didn't know it at the time, he was on his way to writing one of this year's feel-good stories.
The Ohio native faced four batters at the tryout and was signed by the Evansville Otters. Atkinson met up with his new club a few days later in northern Kentucky ahead of their series against the Florence Freedom.
Just over a week later, Atkinson was a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Atkinson made two appearances in eight days for the Otters. He allowed one hit, walked three and struck out eight in 5 2/3 innings and that was enough. The D-backs made Atkinson an offer on July 1 and he joined Rookie-level Missoula the next day.
"I was surprised. I wasn't expecting it to happen like that," the 6-foot-3, 218-pounder said. "I was just trying to take my opportunity and put myself out there. I guess Arizona kept in contact with my coaching staff at Evansville, and the next thing you know everything turned around so fast and it caught me off guard but I took the opportunity and ran with it."
Things continued to move quickly for Atkinson. He made his organizational debut July 4, giving up an unearned run on four hits in five innings. Despite a minor arm injury, the right-hander showed he could hang in the Pioneer League and finished with a 3.38 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings.
A year later and Atkinson is in the middle of a breakout season. The 24-year-old has logged a 3.25 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 21 starts between Class A Kane County, Class A Advanced Visalia and Double-A Jackson. He is tied with Michael Kopech, MLB.com's No. 12 overall prospect, for sixth in the Minor Leagues with 145 strikeouts in 116 1/3 innings.
"I don't personally check that stuff out but my teammates remind me, kind of messing around and giving me a hard time about it," Atkinson said. "Having my name up there with those guys who have been big-name guys in the Minor Leagues throughout their careers is kind of cool.
"I wouldn't say I focus on that stuff, I do take it in, but then I continue to maintain my focus on the straight path and try not to worry about that stuff because it's easy to get caught up in that."
Even though Atkinson doesn't have the type of power stuff that the other strikeout leaders, like Rays top prospect Brent Honeywell and Athletics No. 2 prospect A.J. Puk, possess, he uses some deceit on the mound to get the most out of what he's got working on a particular night.
"I have a pretty good fastball and on top of that, my arm slot is very deceiving to the hitters," Atkinson explained. "So even though it's 92-93 [mph], it may look like it's 95-96 out of my hand. My delivery is the same with all of my pitches. My rhythm is the same with all of my pitches, so I create good deception with my pitches and that makes it tougher for the batters to pick up what I'm throwing."
Atkinson has moved between levels quite a bit this year, including a surprise re-assignment from Visalia back to Kane County on June 22, despite producing a 3.33 ERA and 1.19 WHIP with 66 strikeouts in 48 1/3 innings for the Rawhide.
"I was told it wasn't based on performance, but it was something that had to happen," noted Atkinson, who has struck out 31 percent of 472 batters faced this year. "They were happy with my performance and happy with the way things were going and they wanted to continue starting or else they would have kept me in Visalia and put me in the bullpen. But they were happy with what I was doing and with my numbers so they sent me to Kane County. I didn't get discouraged -- I understood the reasoning behind the move and just focused on controlling what I could control."
Back in the Midwest League, Atkinson continued to improve. He made six more starts with the Cougars, striking out 48 in 36 2/3 frames before getting another surprise -- a promotion to Jackson.
"I was, again, shocked. They told me they were happy with my numbers, so I tried to keep that confidence and the next thing you know, I'm being promoted to Double-A," he said.
In his first two starts with the Generals, Atkinson has a 2.45 ERA and 1.55 WHIP with 11 punchouts in 11 innings. His second start saw him yield two runs despite giving up six walks and three hits. Atkinson admitted he didn't have his best stuff with him on the mound, but he was still able to keep the team in the game.
"I was impressed with his start because he really didn't have anything working for him," Jackson pitching coach Doug Drabek said. "His fastball was all over the zone, he didn't have a feel for his curveball and his changeup was kind of 50-50. Yet, he was still able to almost get into the sixth inning. He kept battling and trying to make pitches. When I talked to him in the middle of the game, I told him to just try to grind it out, and that's exactly what he did."
Should things remain status quo, Atkinson figures to have five or six more starts this season to make a run at the Minor League strikeout crown. At this point, it would take a superlative effort to catch Oklahoma City's Wilmer Font and his 160 whiffs, but as Atkinson knows better than most, weirder things have happened.