Pat Neshek’s soaring triumph tinged with sorrow

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MINNEAPOLIS — The most remarkable and wonderful part about the Pat Neshek story is that it isn’t one story. It is 10 different stories going over top of each other like different children’s hands working their way up the handle of a baseball bat in that game to decide who hits first. When Neshek starts crying for happiness as he talks about how unlikely and absurd it is, all of it, you are not quite sure which specific unlikely and absurd part he is thinking about.

For instance, he could be talking just about the thrill of being here, back in his hometown, at the unlikely age of 33 (almost 34) age in his first All-Star Game just a few miles away from where he grew up. That is story enough right there.

Then, he could just be talking about baseball. Pat Neshek loves baseball. No, really, he LOVES baseball. He reached into his pocket and pulls out … old baseball cards. There’s a Tony Oliva card. There’s a Juan Marichal card. There’s also a Sam McDowell card. Neshek heard McDowell might be here. He hopes to get the cards autographed for his collection.

See, Neshek is a huge baseball card collector. He’s trying to get the entire 1970 set autographed. You would think this is common among baseball players, but it really is not. It used to surprise me how few really big baseball fans are playing the game. For years, I would ask players to tell some story about their baseball fanhood. Finally, though, so many would shrug their shoulders whenever something about baseball history came up, or say something like, “I wasn’t that big a fan of any one team or player, I was too busy playing baseball,” that I finally stopped asking.

That’s not to say you have to be a big baseball fan to appreciate being in the All-Star Game … it’s a great professional moment. But I would guess being a fan, dreaming about this game, adds something. Neshek talks about wispy memories of the 1985 All-Star Game in Minneapolis, when he was just 5. He talks about vivid memories of a World Series parade when he saw Kirby Puckett and first dreamed of being a baseball player. So when he thinks about being in an All-Star Game parade this week and some kid maybe seeing him and dreaming … sure, the eyes get a little watery.

Then, the eyes also get a little watery when he thinks about where his career has been. He could have made the All-Star Game back in 2007. He was 26 years old then, and he was playing for his hometown Minnesota Twins, and at the All-Star break, he had a 1.70 ERA and the league was hitting .129 against him. He didn’t make the team; middle relievers rarely do. But he had a good career going. Neshek threw with a crazy sidearm angle that started low and ended high, but unlike most sidewinders, he could throw hard, and he dominated hitters.

Then, it all went bad. In 2008, after just 13 1/3 innings, he was shut down for the season because of a ligament tear in his elbow. He did not want to undergo Tommy John surgery and held off as long as he could. After the season ended, he finally relented and had the surgery and missed all of the 2009 season as well. Shortly into the 2010 season, he injured his middle finger and then got into a bit of a public spat with the Twins because he did not believe it was handled properly. He only pitched nine innings that year — that meant he had pitched just 22 innings in three years. After the season, the team he grew up loving put him on waivers, and he went to pitch in San Diego.

This was baseball as business, not as the game he grew up loving. That can be a shock, but you adjust or you drop out. Someone asked another Minnesota native — All-Star reliever Glen Perkins — if he wanted to be a starter when he first started in baseball. “Yeah, but I stunk at it,” he said. “And then I wanted to be a reliever.”

It didn’t work out for Neshek with the Padres, so he signed on with Baltimore. That didn’t work out either, he didn’t make the team, so he pitched for their Class AAA team for a while until Oakland traded for him. That was great. He liked Oakland a lot. He grew a beard because A’s GM Billy Beane told the team to do something fun. His fastball was more or less gone, but his slider had become a nice pitch. In his first full inning with the A’s, he struck out the side throwing sliders.

“Yeah,” his catcher Derek Norris said. “Let’s keep doing that.”

So Neshek pitched from the stretch, and he threw slider after slider for a year and a half in Oakland, and he pitched pretty well in limited time, but the truth is that people around baseball don’t have much faith in 30-something relievers who live and die with their sliders. When last season ended, he waited for teams to call. Well, he didn’t just wait — he called teams himself. Detroit? Not interested. Milwaukee? Barely interested. That was hard. “It would have been easy for me to quit,” he says.

Then, his father, Gene, offered a suggestion: Maybe he should go back to his full wind-up and try to find his fastball again. Hey, why not? Neshek tried it. He felt like the ball was popping pretty well. The Cardinals called and offered a chance … he told his agent that St. Louis was a waste of time, that the Cardinals bullpen was already overloaded. But St. Louis was the only one that offered a real opportunity so he went to camp and threw as hard as he could.

And … something crazy happened. That fastball — which had been stuck at 85 or 86 for years — now rushed in at 92 or 93 mph at times. That was interesting. His slider still fooled hitters. He somehow made the team. On April 11 against the Cubs, he came into a close game in the ninth and pitched a scoreless inning, striking out two. It was the first of what would be 22 consecutive appearances without allowing a run. On May 21st, his ERA dropped below 1.00. It has been there ever since.

“Our third All-Star,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said to the team after announcing that perennial stars Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright had made the team, “Is a first-time All-Star.” He then told everyone that Pat Neshek had made the All-Star team, and they all cheered wildly and stood up and patted him on the back. “It was such an amazing moment after everything I’ve been through,” Neshek says. “I wanted to cry.” He’s crying while talking about crying.

Only then, after all that, do you get to the most emotional story of all. In 2012, Pat and his wife, Stephanee, had their first child, a son they named Gehrig after, well, who else? Pat called it the happiest day of his life, as all first-time dads do.

Less than 24 hours after Gehrig was born, he stopped breathing — the agony was all-encompassing. The Nesheks have said they will never fully get over it. For more than a year, they could not even open their mail to see the thousands of cards and letters of support they received. It hurt too much. One of the most remarkable things about people, though, is their ability to keep going, to keep living, and earlier this year during spring training, the Nesheks had another son. They named him Hoyt after Hoyt Wilhelm — the Hall of Famer pitcher. He was born 11 days premature, and he was diagnosed with pneumonia.

“Scary,” is the only word Pat Neshek can think of to describe those early hours.

But Hoyt came through. Every day, all spring training, Pat would drive the 90 miles from their home in Melbourne, Fla., to the Cardinals’ spring training facility in Jupiter and back. He said the drive wasn’t a lot of fun. But he would say that he did a lot of thinking on those drives. He thought about baseball, of course. He thought about family. He thought about why he was still doing all this. He wonders if all that thinking might have something to do with the crazy success he’s had this season. Maybe he figured something out. Hey, it’s as good an explanation as anything else.

Last Sunday, the Neshek family — all the grandparents and cousins and the like — gathered in Milwaukee. On Friday night, Pat pitched a scoreless inning and was credited with a victory. Over the weekend, they all celebrated Hoyt. And on Sunday, Hoyt Neshek took his first airplane ride to Minnesota for his father’s first All-Star Game.

“Sorry I’m late,” Neshek said as he walked in for his press conference. “I was on daddy duty.” He then flashed the biggest smile in Minnesota. This was the happiest day of his life. Again. They’re all like that now.

Miguel Montero throws Jake Arrieta under the bus after the Nats steal seven bases

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It takes a lot of things to happen for a runner to steal a base. He has to be fast. He has to get a good jump on the pitcher. He has to beat the catcher’s throw down to second and he has to avoid a tag if it’s close.

In light of that, any number of people can, theoretically anyway, be responsible for an opposing base runner stealing a base. The pitcher can be responsible for not holding the runner or for being slow in his delivery to the plate. The catcher can be responsible for getting off bad throws to second. The middle infielder can handle the throw poorly or apply the tag poorly. Or, in some cases, the defense may do everything right and still not nab that runner because he was just too dang fast.

Last night the Washington Nationals stole seven bases off of the Chicago Cubs. Trea Turner, one of baseball’s fastest players and best base stealers, stole four of them. The pitcher on the mound for all seven of them was Jake Arrieta. The catcher behind the plate for all seven of them was Miguel Montero. The infielders for all seven of them were Tommy La Stella and Javier Baez. All of these men, Turner, and his teammates Anthony Rendon and Michael Taylor, who also stole bases, were the moving parts in play.

Who was to credit and who was to blame for all of those stolen bases? If you ask Miguel Montero, it was his pitcher, Arrieta:

 

If you can’t watch the video, here’s what he said:

“The reason why they were running left and right today because they know he was slow to the plate. It really sucked because the stolen bases go to me, and when you really look at it, the pitcher doesn’t give me any time.”

You can watch all seven of the stolen bases here. Turner gets great jumps and that can partially be blamed on Arrieta. That’s especially true on a couple of steals that didn’t even draw a throw from Montero. But:

  • On one of them Montero bounced his throw;
  • On another it was a delayed steal that seemed to take Montero by surprise;
  • On a third the pitch was high and outside, making it hard for Montero to get rid of the ball quickly but not attributable to Arrieta being deliberate;
  • One came with a runner on third, which caused Montero to, wisely, hold on to the ball to prevent a run from scoring; and
  • On the last one Montero airmailed the throw.

Perhaps someone with a stopwatch on Arrieta could better proportion blame here, but by my estimation Arrieta was clearly to blame for two of them, Montero was more at fault on three of them and the other two were really no one’s fault but circumstance. And that’s without giving Turner, Rendon and Taylor credit, which is just dumb.

But sure, Miguel, go ahead and throw this all on your team’s ace. That’s a fantastic thing for a backup catcher to do. Leads to great job security.

And That Happened: Tuesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Nationals 6, Cubs 1: Max Scherzer allowed one run over six innings, striking out six. Four of the Nats runs came via a couple of infield singles and a couple of Cubs throwing errors. The other two came via a Michael Taylor RBI double. The Nationals stole seven bases off of Miguel Montero and Jake Arrieta, four coming from Trea Turner. After the game, Montero wanted everyone to know that it wasn’t his fault, it was Arrieta’s:

“The reason why they were running left and right today because they know he was slow to the plate,” a visibly frustrated Montero said. “It really sucked because the stolen bases go to me, and when you really look at it, the pitcher doesn’t give me any time.”

Team. Player. Joe Maddon, any comment?

Rangers 2, Indians 1: Adrian Beltre hit his 450th homer. And he did it at a wonderful time: in the ninth inning of a tie game, giving his team the win. The homer was his 2,969th career hit. Which is nice.

Orioles 3, Blue Jays 1: Kevin Gausman and three relievers held the Jays to a lone run. Which, once you adjust for this being the Orioles, is the equivalent of any other team holding the opposition to, like, negative eight runs. Mark Trumbo doubled in two, Adam Jones singled in one. A ninth inning solo homer from Troy Tulowitzki was the only damage the Jays did all night.

Tigers 5, Royals 3: Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez each homered, helping the Tigers overcome an early 3-0 deficit. Justin Verlander allowed three over seven and the bullpen tossed two shutout innings. Which, once you adjust for this being the Tigers, is the equivalent of any other team’s bullpen shutting out the opposition for, like, eleven innings.

Phillies 8, Mariners 2: Maikel Franco and Arron Altherr homered for the Phillies, who overcame a 2-0 deficit. Which, once you adjust for this being the Phillies, is the equivalent of any other team overcoming, like, a six-run deficit. Aaron Nola allowed two runs over seven and struck out nine.

Red Sox 9, Twins 2: Most pitchers will not come back after a rain delay of more than an hour or so. Here Drew Pomeranz waited out a 76-minute rain delay in the second inning and stayed in the game to deliver five solid innings, backed by homers from Christian Vázquez and Chris Young In his last seven starts, Pomeranz is 4-1 with a 2.70 ERA, 44 strikeouts and 9 walks in 40 innings. The Red Sox reclaime sole possession of first place in the AL East.

Rays 4, Pirates 2: avid Freese misplayed a groundball at third base in the top of the 10th inning, allowing Steven Souza to score and giving the Rays the win. An Adeiny Hechavarria sac fly added an insurance run. Hechavarria also singled in a run in the eighth. Not a bad first day on the job for the newest Ray.

Reds 8, Brewers 6: The Redlegs were homer happy with Joey Votto hitting a tiebreaking two-run homer in the fifth and Billy Hamilton, Adam Duvall and Eugenio Suarez all going deep as well. Travis Shaw hit a three-run shot in a losing cause. The Brewers have lost three of four but continue to hold a one-game lead in the NL Central.

Marlins 6, Mets 3: Mets starter Robert Gsellman left the game after straining his hamstring while trying to beat out a grounder in the fourth inning and will now likely be the sixth Mets starter to hit the DL this year. DH uber alles. He also allowed three runs in three innings, but the Mets came back to tie it with a Travis d’Arnaud homer in the seventh. A pinch-hitting Ichiro singled in J.T. Realmuto in the bottom half of the seventh, however, and Christian Yelich singled in two more in later that inning to pad the Marlins’ lead.

White Sox 4, Yankees 3: The Yankees’ bullpen imploded once again. Leading 3-1 in the eighth, Domingo German and Tyler Clippard combined to issue four walks to allow the White Sox to get within one. In the ninth, Dellin Betances walked two guys and hit a batter before Jose Abreu smacked a walkoff single. Abreu also had an RBI double in the third. The White Sox snap a four-game losing streak.

Athletics 6, Astros 4: Ryon Healy hit a a grand slam in the sixth and Khris Davis scored one run and doubled in another. Sean Manaea was solid into the sixth, holding the mighty Astros lineup to one run. That grand slam gave the A’s needed room to absorb George Springer‘s ninth inning three-run shot.

Diamondbacks 6, Cardinals 5: The Cardinals bullpen blew this one. Leading 5-2 in the eighth, Trevor Rosenthal surrendered an RBI single to Daniel Descalso and a sac fly to Chris Herrmann to allow the Dbacks to get within one. In the ninth, Seung-Hwan Oh gave up a solo homer to David Peralta to force extras. Herrmann struck again in the tent, knocking in Reymond Fuentes with a game-ending RBI single off of Matt Bowman.

Dodgers 4, Angels 0: Kenta Maeda tossed seven shutout innings and the Dodgers scored all four of their runs in the six via a Cody Bellinger RBI single and a Joc Pederson three-run blast. This one was over in a crisp two-hours, thirty minutes. Some kook wrote a column the other day in the Wall Street Journal saying weeknight baseball games should be seven innings. If that was the case here fans could’ve kept their engines running while they watched the game and popped right back out.

Braves 3, Padres 0: Rookie Sean Newcomb shut out the Padres for six innings, striking out eight, to pick up his first career win. He’s only allowed four earned runs in 24.1 innings over four starts, so he probably deserves to have more than the one win. Padres manager Andy Green thinks Newcomb maybe didn’t deserve his eight strikeouts here:

“That was the largest strike zone I have seen against our guys behind home plate. Newcomb threw the ball very well. But Tyler Flowers is the player of the game in my mind. He is snatching balls above the zone, below the zone, and bringing them back in and getting a strike on all of them.”

Miguel Montero agrees, it was someone else’s fault. Atlanta has won eight of ten.

Giants 4, Rockies 3: This one went late but Denard Span finally sent everyone home with a walkoff RBI single in the bottom of the fourteenth inning to give the Giants the win. Kelby Tomlinson forced extras with an RBI single in the eighth inning. The Rockies are reeling, losers of seven straight. They were in first place entering play a week ago today. Now they’re in third, five and a half back of the Dodgers. So much for that early season feel good story.