St. Louis Cardinals reliever Pat Neshek allowed the game-winning solo home run to Los Angeles Dodgers right-fielder Matt Kemp in the eighth inning Saturday night. It extended a series of rough outings by the right-hander onto the national stage, as St. Louis lost a chance to return home with a dominating 2-0 lead in the National League Division Series.
I am not down on Neshek. His story has been one of the best on the Cardinals this season. Plagued by injuries since his early success in Minnesota in 2006 and 2007, the Minnesota native with the unorthodox delivery bounced between the majors and minors in each of the last four seasons with three organizations.
Unable to secure a major league job for this spring, Neshek reported to Cardinals camp as a non-roster invitee. After making the team, he almost immediately began to earn more innings and more important ones. As Carlos Martinez and Kevin Siegrist struggled, the former was temporarily re-made into a minor league starter and the latter was placed on the disabled list, Neshek eased into the set-up role for ninth-inning man Trevor Rosenthal.
It is truly a rare honor for a reliever who is not a closer to make the All-Star Team, but that is what Neshek accomplished in 2014. He contributed seven wins against just two losses and even picked up his first six career saves.
Yet the realities of a heavy workload may be showing.
Neshek is 33 and has already thrown his highest number of innings since 2007. With 1 2/3 innings more work this post-season, he will surpass that and set a new career single-season high in innings pitched.
Through 59 outings, he was lights out. Neshek had allowed a total of five earned runs, four on homers, for an 0.87 ERA. From late August through the remainder of the regular season, it was a different story. Over his last 12 regular season appearances totaling 12 innings, Neshek yielded nine earned runs for a 6.75 ERA. That included a loss and a blown save.
Stop me if you’ve seen this story unfold before.
In 2013, the Cardinals needed a closer with Jason Motte out for the year. A reliable veteran set-up man was thrust into the high-pressure spot and excelled. Edward Mujica earned a National League all-star berth on his way to a total of 37 saves.
But by late August, Mujica’s magic season began to unravel. One factor may have been four multi-inning outings in mid-August, an unusually high workload for a closer.
Whatever the cause, it appeared that Mujica’s tank was nearing empty as the playoffs approached.
Over his final 13 regular season appearances, totaling 10 innings, he was smacked around for 10 earned runs. You can do the math to calculate a precise and unsightly ERA of 9.00.
As Rosenthal took over ninth-inning duties for the Cardinals, Mujica was relegated to non-critical duty during the post-season, allowing one run in two innings. He departed as a free agent later in the fall.
Neshek may follow Mujica’s path this winter, earning a nice contract elsewhere, perhaps to be replaced on the 2015 Cardinals roster with another veteran reliever looking for a chance to rebound.
The question on the table should be what to do in between. The answer may be a difference-maker in the Cardinals’ post-season push.
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