Ace on the mound


Dean starts season at top of Rock Cats’ rotation

Naugatuck native Pat Dean pitches on opening day for the New Britain Rock Cats April 3. Dean went 5 1/3 innings, allowed two runs on three hits and earned the victory. -SCOTT BLANCHETTE
Naugatuck native Pat Dean pitches on opening day for the New Britain Rock Cats April 3. Dean went 5 1/3 innings, allowed two runs on three hits and earned the victory. -SCOTT BLANCHETTE

NEW BRITAIN — If Pat Dean couldn’t start this baseball season in Triple-A, he certainly started it off in the next best way.

The Naugatuck native and Minnesota Twins prospect is the No. 1 starter in the New Britain Rock Cats’ rotation and kicked off the season with a gem on opening night.

Dean, in his first opening-day start in the minors, earned the victory last Thursday by hurling 5 1/3 innings and allowing just two runs on three hits. He struck out seven with one walk in the Rock Cats’ 10-2 victory over Richmond before nearly 5,500 fans in New Britain.

The strong opening start is a promising sign for Dean, who is one of the veterans on the Rock Cats’ pitching staff and is the only returner who made at least 20 starts for the club last season. He posted a 6-11 record with a 4.68 ERA in 22 starts for Double-A New Britain before he was called up to Triple-A Rochester late in the season.

There, Dean dazzled with a 3-2 mark and a 2.02 ERA in six starts as he helped the Red Wings reach the postseason. He earned an International League Pitcher of the Week award during his stint last August and September, but the Twins organization decided to have him return to New Britain to start his fourth full professional season.

“I don’t think it’s a step backwards,” Dean said. “It’s just an opportunity to go out there and face some great competition. I got lucky last year to make a few starts with Rochester, but I’m happy to be back home and hopefully get off to a good start.”

Rock Cats manager Jeff Smith, who is in his fifth season leading the squad, thinks he’s lucky to have a starter of Dean’s caliber coming back after his success in Triple-A.

“You ask (Rochester’s) staff, and he was one of the main reasons they made it into the playoffs,” Smith said. “More than anything, I like his poise and what he brings to the table. It’s a big honor for him and a big honor for us to have him out there (on opening night).”

Dean struggled during the first half of last season with New Britain, going 1-5 with a 6.24 ERA, but he turned it around as the summer continued. Highlights included his first professional shutout in June against Reading and his success in Rochester.

He attributed the turnaround to a shift in his pitching strategy.

“I really started figuring out how to pitch inside to hitters,” Dean said. “Last year at the start of the season, I lived away to guys and they started sitting outside. Now I’m starting to utilize the inside part of the plate, which has expanded the zone for me.”

Dean’s maturity has also earned Smith’s trust — enough for the skipper to send out the Boston College product for an opening-night start. Dean’s strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.59, which was the best of any New Britain starter last season, only helps that feeling.

“Any time you get a pitcher on the mound and you can trust what he’s going to do out there, you know what you’re going to get,” Smith said. “In my mind, I know we’re going to get six innings and we’re going to have a chance to win the ballgame. That’s the best thing you can say about a starting pitcher.”

Dean, a left-hander, employs a four-pitch repertoire. He throws a slider, a curveball and a changeup along with his fastball, which peaks in the low 90s. That’s not enough to blow by professional hitters, so he’s content with filling up the strike zone.

“I know I’m not a power guy,” Dean said. “I know I’m not going to strike out 10 or 12 guys a game, so I need to put the ball on the ground and let my defense do its job.”

The 6-foot-1, 193-pounder’s quality start in the season opener continued New Britain’s history of strong opening-day starters. Eleven of the previous 19 hurlers who pitched on opening day for the Rock Cats have reached the majors, including Francisco Liriano and Kyle Lohse.

Smith didn’t think that type of pressure would get to Dean — and it didn’t.

“Whether he makes this start in Double-A or in the big leagues, you know what you’re going to get from him,” Smith said. “Pat never lets a big game affect him. It’s an honor to pitch opening day, but it’s just another baseball game.”

Dean, who will turn 25 next month, earned his second win Wednesday as New Britain topped Harrisburg. 5-4. Dean pitched six innings and gave up four runs on seven hits with five strikeouts.

If the rotation holds, Dean’s next home start will be April 19 against Portland, the Boston Red Sox affiliate.

“I’m in a very good situation right now,” Dean said. “It sounds like they like me and they’re giving me this opportunity. I’m not old yet.”