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San Francisco Giants v Philadelphia Phillies

Pat Neshek is a man looking to be tested

Houston or Philly, first place or last, the 2017 Phillies All-Star is out there to take on the day.

Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images

Zack Greinke is probably not baseball’s most approachable player. But at Tuesday’s MLB All-Star Game, he will be indeed approached by a young boy. The lad will extend his hand, offering the Diamondbacks pitcher a ball, or a scrap of paper, or his palm, sweating with nerves, and in that moment, Greinke may buckle and give the fellow the signature he desires. His face alight, the child disappear into the midsummer throngs, returning the coveted autograph to its true seeker: his father, Phillies reliever and sole All-Star Game representative, Pat Neshek.


Neshek’s affinity for the scrawlings of ball player names is well known, but Greinke has eluded his collection, which apparently makes it harder to secure then the signature of Jimi Hendrix and Napoleon Bonaparte; thus the plan Neshek has, as relayed to us during a Phillies broadcast, for the All-Star Game is to acquire it by employing his son as a shadow agent. It’s a fun bullet point on the back of the baseball card for a guy who is having the best season on the Phillies roster, yet about whom we may know the least. It feels like the veteran right-handed side-armer just got here, so let’s get to know him now, because he probably won’t be here much longer.

At 36 years old, one would assume Neshek had developed an attachment to certain facets of his game: his routine. His process. His number. But he’s actually worn 72, 17, 34, 40, 47, and 41 (He donned No. 17 again for the Phillies) throughout his career, never becoming so fused to the digit on his back that he wouldn’t abandon it for the chance to get, say, Babe Ruth’s autograph. When John Lackey went to the Cardinals in 2014, he lusted after the 41 on Neshek's back, and the reliever gladly released his number to him - for the price of a Ruth-autographed baseball. At the time of the autograph, Ruth was still using quotes around the name, "Babe," which an expert told Neshek as he was picking out the prize (Lackey had offered a watch, Neshek told him he had a better idea) meant it had to have been early in his career - 1926, to be exact, still within Ruth’s playing days.

Before his teammates could say "Sweet lord, don’t do that," Neshek had the ball out of the box and walked it around the Cardinals clubhouse, asking if anybody wanted to touch it. Analysts have put the ball’s value at $25,000.

"Everything is relative, I guess," a shrugging John Lackey told reporters who brought up the price he must have paid for the number 41.

That, it seems, is Pat Neshek. Laid back and out of the box, but always ready for the next challenge. If you can't find it for him, he'll just get it somewhere else.

He was birthed in the frigid timbers of Madison, Wisconsin, so Neshek was born with pretty much his current size and beard. The Twins tried to sneak him - an All-State pitcher - out of the Minneapolis suburbs in the 44th round of the 1999 MLB Draft, but he declined, choosing to go to Butler University instead. He still holds the school’s record for strikeouts in a game, season, and career (18, 118, 280, respectively) from his scorching junior year performance. The next season, he’d see his SO/9 drop to 9.72 (darn) and his SO/W rise to 4.27 (double darn).

The "side-armer" in him came through in just about every way, as Neshek had a hard time doing anything that didn’t make people turn their heads.

From the Indianapolis Star:

Everything he did seemed herky-jerky, and not just the three-quarters delivery the young pitcher used on the mound. [Neshek's teammate and roommate] Paul Beck remembers that even in the weight room, Neshek's workouts were different from his teammates. Nothing was smooth, not even a routine bench press. There was a bounce even when he walked to class.

...

"Pat taught me an important lesson in coaching," [Butler coach Steve] Farley said. "Sometimes, the best thing a coach can do is leave a guy alone."

But none of that herky-jerking did anything to stop the Twins from drooling over him, as they drafted him once more in the 2002 MLB Draft, 182nd overall (it was a light drool), and stashed him in the Appalachian League with their Elizabethton farm team - where he accumulated a 0.99 ERA and 15 saves.

He only only nine earned runs in 37.0 IP as a Minnesota rookie in 2006, while compiling a deeply unbalanced scale of 53 SO to only 6 BB. That’s 1.4 WAR from a greenhorn reliever, and it went up to 1.5 the next year, when the Twins, following a playoff appearance, moved him into a more defined role, letting Neshek finish 20 games. It was sick enough of a year that fans pushed Neshek into the final five vote for the last spot on the AL All-Star team, which in the end went to Hideki Okajima. He pitched a lot that year - the Twins ran him out there in 74 games until he had to be benched with shoulder and arm fatigue.

That's never a good sign. Every pitcher has his Tommy John moment, and the baseball gods were whispering to each other about Neshek's. It finally came the following May, when a UCL tear had him hit the 60-day DL. That November, he went under the TJ buzzsaw and missed all of 2009.

Neshek was able to make the Twins roster the following spring training, only to be quickly taken off of it as he suffered what was initially diagnosed as middle finger inflammation, but what was later revealed to be an issue with the pulley tendon in the palm of his hand. Not quite pleased at the missed time from the misdiagnosis, Neshek did what any of us would do and aired his grievances with the Twins medical staff on Facebook and Twitter, getting some use out of that middle finger that apparently had never been the problem.

The public venting earned him the ire of manager Ron Gardenhire, who hiked his britches up and sat the 29-year-old pitcher down for a talking-to:

"If you have something to say, you should say it to me or to the doctors and not on Tweeter."

For the rest of 2010, Neshek managed to squeeze in 11 inning for Minnesota, surrendering seven hits, five earned runs, eight walks... all very un-Nesheky numbers. The Twins saw him as fading away, and in March 2011, Neshek posted on Facebook that he had been claimed off waivers by the Padres. If San Diego hadn’t swiped him, word was the Twins would have DFA’d him anyway.

"Too bad for Pat," wrote La Velle E. Neal III, Twins writer for the Minnesota Star-Tribune. "He was a different guy, but a cool guy. Wish him the best."

Neshek made it into 25 games for San Diego, building what would be the last 4.00+ ERA of his career (thus far).

A free agent, Neshek landed in Oakland in 2012 after a brief spring stay within the Orioles. In 24 appearances, Neshek joined one of those scrappy A’s squads doomed to be eliminated by some garrison of cold-hearted elites and amassed a 1.37 ERA, only to run into Raul Ibanez during that brief late-career period with the Yankees when he was going nuclear. Ibanez crushed Oakland in a key game on September 22, in which he saved his second homer of the day to discount an A’s rally that had made it a 9-5 game only moments before. Neshek inherited three bases loaded with singles-hitters upon entering the game; a wild pitch, a sac fly, and Ibanez’s fatal tater made for a rough walk back to the clubhouse.

"Craziest? No. Most aggravating? Yes," Neshek’s catcher Derek Norris - who had felt the sting of Ibanez himself, only from a collision with the Yankee outfielder at the plate, not a heart-shattering pitch selection - said afterward of the loss. It slimmed the A’s lead to 2.5 in the AL West, but they still managed to take the division flag before being eliminated in the ALDS.

By the end of his time in Oakland, Neshek was being used as the mop-up, garbage time, trash collector; a role nobody likely covets and one that can’t do too much for the old self-confidence.

"Unfulfilled," Neshek called himself, as he saw a dip in playing time, had a child on the way, and the loss of an infant son in October 2012 was still in the recent past. With the Cardinals and Brewers poking around in 2014, the best Neshek seemed to be able to hope for was a minor league deal. St. Louis in particular saw him as a righty specialist option, if he was willing to reheat in AAA. Neshek’s father suggested he start throwing fastballs again - so low was Neshek’s confidence in his heater, he said he would go weeks between throwing one, choosing to assault batters with his slider that they could tell was coming, but still not hit.

That motion, the one that looks like Neshek is trying to take off his shirt with one arm, masked the velocity issues he had suffered. Peaking at 94 m.p.h. even as a rookie, he was encouraged by the click of 92 m.p.h. on the radar gun now, and when a guy’s arm looks like it’s going to snap off and come with the pitch, twirling at you like a table leg, it’s probably tough to focus on the ball, even if it's "only" going 92.

The fastball came back, and so did Neshek, as he quickly became an effective reliever for the Cardinals, earning his first All-Star berth in Minneapolis, the town where he had lived after his actual birth. From there, it was elimination for Neshek and the Cards at the hands of that even-year Giants bull****, and Neshek became a free agent, with far fewer questions about the direction of his career this time: He would correctly head for the $12.5 million waiting for him in a two-year deal with the Astros in Houston, which is where he was when he entered Matt Klentak’s crosshairs.

And even though his current team seems at times like an undeveloped band of flops, turkeys, and duds, he for some incredible reason doesn’t wish things had gone any other way.

When Neshek checks out the standings these days, he sees that his old team, the Houston Astros, is the best in baseball, and his current team, the Phillies, is the worst.

Does it make the 36-year-old relief pitcher long to be back in Houston?

"God, no," Neshek said with a look of mild horror crossing his face.

Neshek's frustration in Houston was due to an unchallenged role, Neshek said, as he went from manning the eighth inning to getting the niche role as a righty-on-righty specialist who, as always, felt like he was being underutilized. That’s not to say that he's found what he's looking for in Philly or that the Phillies should be lauded for their bullpen management this season - they shouldn’t - but at least Neshek knows he won’t be here forever. With his numbers, he'll likely soon be playing higher stakes ball than the Phillies have offered this season; something he knows as well as we do and knowledge that may have manifested itself as a bit of drama earlier in the year. Soon enough, his audition for better things outside of Philadelphia will conclude, and he'll be off to the next test, the next challenge, the next international battle for supremacy...

...or the next bases-loaded situation with no outs.

But thankfully, Raul Ibanez is a special advisor to the Dodgers now.

References

If These Walls Could Talk: Stories from the St. Louis Cardinals, by Stan McNeal

Appalachian League Baseball, by Allen LaMountain

Gamethread 5/21: Dodgers at Phillies

No Harper? No point: Dodgers 4, Phillies 1

Gamethread 5/20: Dodgers at Phillies