Seven years into his journey from Lexington High School toward his dream job of pitching in the major leagues, former Winthrop star Heath Rollins encountered his first pinch-me moment.
The 24-year-old right-hander entered a spring training game for the Tampa Bay Rays against the World Series champion New York Yankees and faced the heart of their order.
For a guy who had a grand total of six innings above the Double-A level coming into the spring, the sight of Derek Jeter stepping to the plate let him know exactly how far he had come.
"You grow up watching them and don't know that you'll ever face them," Rollins said. "It's kind of surreal."
Rollins quickly discovered why Jeter is on his way to the Hall of Fame when the Yankees shortstop singled through the right side.
"I didn't feel too bad about it. He's been doing that his whole career," said Rollins, before adding, almost wistfully, "but he was one I wanted to get out."
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Rollins got enough outs this spring to open the eyes of the Rays, who brought him into camp as a non-roster invitee. Unlike a lot of players in his situation, however, he made it to the next-to-last day of camp before being reassigned to the Rays' Triple-A team in Durham, N.C.
Although he entered spring training with no idea of what to expect or how long he might stay, he was determined to make the most of this chance to impress the big-league staff.
"I didn't have too many expectations going in. I just wanted to show what I could do," Rollins said at the start of this week. "I've been really pleased with how I've been throwing."
The decision-makers have been pleased as well. That Rollins made it to the final week of camp still vying for a roster spot says a lot about how highly his performance was regarded. He battled with fellow right-handers Joaquin Benoit, Mike Ekstrom and Dale Thayer for the last spot in the bullpen.
"I didn't know a whole lot about him before this camp," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon told the St. Petersburg Times. "What I do know is I love his demeanor. He's under control when he has the ball late in the game. He's made good pitches, he keeps the ball down. Who knows? You don't have to throw 100 miles an hour to be effective."
Rollins' command and his ability to keep major league hitters off-balance have been demonstrated against some of the game's top players. In 12 innings over eight appearances, Rollins went 1-0 with one save and a 4.50 ERA, although he did allow 17 hits.
"You definitely think you're getting closer. And it's definitely a different atmosphere," he said. "But as far as pitching, you still have to throw strikes. It's always about getting ahead."
Rollins has continued to get ahead in his career by steadily punched his ticket at each stop since leaving Lexington as an All-State performer and North-South Select Game participant.
He spent his freshman season at South Carolina, where he played sparingly for the 2004 World Series team, before transferring to Winthrop in search of more playing time as a two-way player. After two standout seasons for the Eagles on the mound and at the plate, Tampa Bay selected him in the 11th round of the 2006 draft. In 3 1/2 seasons in the minor leagues, during which he has posted a 3.28 ERA over 507 innings, Rollins climbed the ladder to Triple-A Durham.
"I haven't been surprised at all with how well he's done. He's a bulldog," Winthrop coach Joe Hudak said. "We saw every day how tough he was and what a competitor he was."
At Winthrop, he had an immediate impact on the program. In both 2005 and 2006, Rollins played a key role in getting the Eagles to the NCAA tournament twice. In 2005, he went 11-6 with a 3.33 ERA and batted .341 as the first baseman, while in 2006, he posted a 13-4 mark with a 3.51 ERA and hit .328.
"He could have played anywhere for us, but he knew that his future was in pitching," Hudak said.
In his one season at USC, Rollins pitched 3 2-3 innings and got one at-bat.
"I wanted to pitch and play a position," Rollins said.
"It turned out to be a really good move for me."
The two years at Winthrop also catapulted him in the eyes of pro scouts after going undrafted out of high school.
After being chosen by the Rays, he consulted with his family and decided it made the most sense not to return for his senior season. His father, Shay, is a longtime coach who is an assistant principal at Lexington High, and his mother, Pat, is an administrator in Lexington District 1.
"We talked about it and thought that the sooner I could get in there, the better shot I would have. I felt like I was ready to make the jump," said Rollins, who lives in Rock Hill in the offseason and works out at Winthrop with other former Eagles who play professionally.
In his first full season at Single-A Columbus (Ga.) in the South Atlantic League, Rollins posted a 17-4 record and 2.54 ERA and helped lead the Catfish to the 2007 league championship.
"That season in Columbus gave me a lot of confidence," Rollins said.
Although his win-loss records haven't been as good at Single-A Vero Beach and Double-A Montgomery, he has continued to get hitters out at a steady pace as both a starter and reliever.
While he doesn't strike out as many batters as he once did, he does use a 90-mph fastball and effective slider to force a lot of ground balls. His competitiveness is what impresses baseball people the most.
Former Lexington High coach Tommy Williams, who is now an assistant at Newberry, has watched Rollins compete since he was a 9-year-old. Count him as another one who isn't surprised by Rollins' continued success.
"Heath was like a throwback guy. He was always going to put in the extra work. Nothing has really gotten in his way since he left Lexington," Williams said. "He's just got that 'something.' He hates to lose, and he's always going to strive to get better."
As Williams watched Rollins throw in televised spring training games, he couldn't help but feel thrilled for his former player.
Rollins' parents have tried to see him pitch as often as possible since he signed, including a trip to spring training last month.
Rollins has toured the South playing in the Rays organization. He has loved visiting new places and getting to know teammates from across the country. He loves the daily grind.
"I still feel like a minor leaguer trying to get over the hump," Rollins said. "But you know you're close. You can see the end in sight. If not now, then sometime during the year."
The mound at Tropicana Field may be a long way from the youth fields in Lexington, but he isn't about to take this one last step for granted.
"Every kid dreams about it. It's definitely something I dreamed about and worked for. I've been lucky enough to have this opportunity and get to this point."