Stepping onto the pitcher’s mound for the first time in affiliated pro ball was a dream come true for Steve Pastora.
It was a goal that seemed inevitable when Pastora, a native of South San Francisco, was a high school standout at El Camino. A career .300 hitter through three years of varsity baseball from 2011-13, along with a fastball that touched the low 90s, Pastora’s amateur prospect star was shining bright.
Then came a barrage of injuries, sending Pastora’s promising baseball career spiraling through four different colleges over five seasons. Two stints in independent pro ball followed. Then, at last, earlier this year, the Milwaukee Brewers came calling.
“I knew I could do it,” Pastora said. “It was just a matter of someone believing in me.”
Signed to a minor league contract by the Brewers in May as a right-handed pitcher, Pastora impressed in his first affiliated professional season. Pitching for the short-season Rocky Mountain Vibes of the Pioneer League, he made 14 relief appearances, posting a 1-1 record with a 2.37 ERA, striking out 19 against 18 hits and 10 walks through 19 innings of work.
Pastora — who turned 25 on Sept. 3 — worked mostly with a fastball-slider combination and is intent on refining his repertoire in the offseason. But the pure stuff is there, and he has already made strides in improving his pitchability, according to Brewers minor league pitching coordinator Jake McKinley.
“I got to see him three times in game settings, on top of what I saw in extended spring training,” McKinley said. “He did fine every time I saw him. I think the thing he’s doing better now is he’s getting himself into better counts. … He’s got put-away stuff … so I thought for the most part, he’s been doing well with better velocity, but he’s doing better saving that.”
McKinley was well acquainted with Pastora prior to the right-hander’s arrival in extended spring training. In Pastora’s final year of college ball in 2018, he transferred to the NAIA program at William Jessup University in Rocklin. Both were previously stationed in San Mateo County but had never met; Pastora played at College of San Mateo from 2014-15, while McKinley managed the baseball team at Menlo College from 2014-16.
Pastora saw success at William Jessup as a two-way player, and so did the baseball program. The Warriors joined the Golden State Athletic Conference in 2015 and proceeded to finish in the cellar of the conference standings for three straight years. In 2018, McKinley oversaw an epic turnaround, taking a team that posted a 5-24 conference record the previous season to a GSAC championship with a 27-9 conference record and 41 overall wins.
“He was a big deal,” McKinley said. “Obviously we brought him in to pitch because that’s what he had been doing. Then I saw him taking some swings in the cage and I was like, ‘Holy smokes!’”
As a right-fielder, Pastora slashed .331/.463/.638 at the plate. It was quite a collegiate finish for him, considering his previous seasons at CSM, Western Michigan University and Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho had been hampered by injuries to his right ankle and his left, non-throwing shoulder. Even with an inflated 5.71 ERA as a senior at William Jessup, however, Pastora’s future appeared to be as a pitcher, according to McKinley.
“Kudos to him because he played through some pain,” McKinley said. “But I always figured [his future] was going to be on the mound.”
Turning heads in high school
In three varsity seasons at El Camino, Pastora used his arm predominantly from the left side of the diamond as a standout shortstop.
The once revered EC baseball program saw its last great season in 2011, Pastora’s sophomore year. The Colts won the Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division championship. And their sophomore shortstop already seemed to have it all figured out, hitting .316 while appearing in every game.
Pastora pitched just once as a sophomore, however, and went on to total a mere 10 mound appearances in his three years at EC. But the stuff was always there, according to longtime Colts manager Carlos Roman, who coached Pastora for two seasons before retiring in 2012.
“With that arm, he could have pitched for a lot of guys, including us,” Roman said. “But I figured it was in his best interest, going forward, to play shortstop, so that’s where he played.”
During Pastora’s senior season, Roman was no stranger to EC’s baseball operations. And it was a day early in the season when the Colts played Menlo-Atherton that Roman took notice of Pastora’s velocity.
The M-A starting pitcher that day was right-hander Matt McGarry, who went on to pitch at Vanderbilt and Santa Clara University. Roman kept tabs on McGarry, who was lighting up the radar gun with his electric stuff. This was no surprise. What was a surprise, though, was when Roman turned the radar gun on Pastora.
“I looked at it and didn’t want to say anything because I thought I messed up the gun,” Roman said. “And I looked at it a couple pitches later, and it was 92 (mph). … So, he had a great arm. But obviously going forward he got some pretty good instruction.”
Learning to play through pain
As notable as Pastora’s sheer baseball skills as a high schooler, was his track record of injury, which at El Camino was, quantifiably — zero.
“I had never had a broken anything, strained anything until I got into college,” Pastora said.
More accurately, injury struck just before Pastora got to college. He dislocated his non-throwing shoulder at a senior showcase. Then, just three weeks after the final game of his EC career, he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
Pastora returned to action for his true freshman season at CSM, but the injuries continued to mount. He tore a ligament in his right ankle, yet finished his 2014 season on the diamond. As a sophomore, he reinjured his left shoulder, dislocating it in a base-running collision, forcing him to undergo surgery again in April 2015.
After transferring to Western Michigan on full scholarship, his junior season went south. Prior to the Broncos’ home opener — penciled into the starting lineup as the team’s No. 3 hitter — Pastora suffered another injury during batting practice, tearing an ankle ligament. He made his NCAA Division I debut one month later but would go on to hit just .216 on the year.
Then the conversion to the mound
Pastora transferred to the NAIA level at Lewis-Clark State in 2017, exclusively as a pitcher. He flashed an impressive start, striking out eight through seven innings in five relief appearances. But injury struck again as a shoulder impingement ended his season. The silver lining was the timing of said injury, which Pastora to take a medical redshirt; this he was granted after filing a grievance against the NAIA, he said.
The shoulder impingement was minor, Pastora said, but the pitfall was it derailed any prospect stock the newly minted right-handed pitcher had built up heading into the 2018 Major League Baseball Draft.
“I literally talked to every (professional) team that year except for the Yankees and thought I was a for-sure draft pick,” Pastora said.
Granted a reprieve with the medical redshirt — giving him one more season of collegiate baseball eligibility — Pastora landed at William Jessup. Despite the Warriors’ historic 2018 season, however, Pastora went undrafted.
“I thought I was done with baseball,” he said. “I saw I went undrafted and I was just over it. … I still wanted to play baseball, but I just wanted to go home.”
But he didn’t, instead opting to take his natural velocity to the ranks of independent baseball. Pastora signed with the Wichita Wingnuts in 2018. He pitched in three games, firing three shutout innings, not nearly enough to make an impression on affiliated pro scouts.
Or was it?
Traded twice in the offseason, Pastora landed with the Cleburne Railroaders of the American Association. But he never pitched a game for them, instead touching 98 mph on the radar gun during a showcase for the Brewers. He was then tendered a minor league contract.
Pastora credited his work at the Sacramento-based Optimum Athletes with coaches, and former major league pitchers, Ryan Mattheus and Casey Weathers, in helping refine his stuff.
“That’s what I worked for this whole offseason,” Pastora said, “and it happened.”