It may surprise you to know the man who’s quietly become the Phillies’ most effective pitcher this season has done this before. And while that might not seem such an accomplishment on a team that had dropped 22 of its last 28 games heading into Memorial Day, the fact remains 36-year-old Pat Neshek has been pretty close to unhittable.
The bearded sidearming righthander, who overcame Tommy John surgery early in his career, has been frustrating hitters for more than a decade. But never more so that 2014 when after signing a minor league contract with the Cardinals he was so efficient he was named to the All-Star team finishing up that season 7-2 with a 1.87 ERA and six saves.
From there it was on to Houston, where he wondered what was going on while pitching middle relief in a crowded Astros bullpen. After two uneventful seasons, Neshek was sent to Philly this winter for cash considerations.
Consider it money well spent for the man who’s helped solidify a bullpen that was under siege the first six weeks of the season. The key to his success, like side-winding predecessors Kent Tekulve and the late Dan Quisenberry, is that hitters just aren’t used to seeing the ball come at them from a different angle and simply don’t know how to make the adjustment.
“The biggest part of my game is deception,” said Neshek, who’s had just one glitch in 20 appearances this season — serving up a game-winning two run homer to Washington’s Michael Taylor that hit the foul pole. “It took me a little while to realize that. I used to think with my slider and fastball, I could get up on anybody. It’s good stuff, but when you mix in that deception and where the ball’s going, it takes hitters awhile to figure it out.”
By then its usually too late, especially with Neshek’s ability to throw strikes. He’s walked just three in 18 1/3 innings, while striking out 15. For his career he’s dealt just 123 free passes in 443 innings, with 393 K’s.
“I don’t think anybody throws like that, and when a guy’s had success like he’s had it’s fun to catch him,” said Phils catcher Cameron Rupp. “The reactions I hear from hitters are priceless. They start laughing, ‘How am I supposed to hit this?’’’
Neshek didn’t start out this way, though. After playing at Butler, where the baseball team dressed in the same locker room used in “Hoosiers,” and occasionally practiced in famed Hinkle Field House, he started off in the Twins organization in 2002. By 2006 he’d climbed the ladder to the majors, where things were progressing well until 2008 when his arm started hurting, resulting in the Tommy John surgery
That forced him to miss the entire 2009 season and pitch only a combined 53.1 innings over the next three years, while he regained his strength and velocity. Eventually it came back.
Since then, the 6-foot-3, 220 pound Neshek has been a workhorse, appearing in 197 games over the next three seasons. Maybe that’s why, before reporting to spring training in Clearwater, he was summoned to pitch for Team USA in the recent World Baseball Classic.
He says it was not only an exhilarating experience but great preparation for the season.
“It was awesome,” said Neshek, who did not allow a run in five games, getting the win in the second round versus Venezuela. “The energy from the other countries was just remarkable; something I’ve never experienced. [Manager] Jim Leyland came to us during the tournament and said ‘People aren’t expecting much out of you, so let’s see what you can do.’ He kind of fired us up.”
Team USA took it from there, winning the tournament. And Pat Neshek has been on a roll ever since.
“I’m just riding a lot of good outings,” said Neshek, a noted autograph and memorabilia collector. “As far as leaving Houston it was very welcome. I knew I could do a lot more. To me my role wherever I’m used is just go out and put up zeroes.”
For the 2017 Phillies, no one has done it better