Neagle Hopes For Fifth Spot In Pirates' Rotation

April 14, 1992|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,Staff writer

PHILADLEPHIA — PHILADELPHIA -- With his left hand gripping the top of his locker, pitcher Denny Neagle tried to stretch out an arm that had been abused over the last three hours.

Four times Saturday night, the Arundel High graduate had jumped to his feet, removed his jacket and began throwing in the visitors' bullpen at chilly Veterans Stadium.

And each time, he eventually stopped, put on his jacket and sat down with his fellow Pittsburgh Pirate relievers behind the left-fieldwall.

"They say when you get up that many times, it's like throwing a game. I'm sure I'll feel it a little bit tomorrow," he said, grimacing as he stepped away from the locker without releasing his hold.

The 23-year-old southpaw has made only one regular-season appearance with the Pirates since being included in a controversial trade that sent 20-game winner John Smiley to Minnesota last month. He worked1 1/3 innings against Montreal last Thursday and allowed a run on two hits in an 8-3 loss.

Neagle entered the game with two outs in the sixth inning, two runners on and the Pirates behind, 3-1, and retired the Expos' Delino DeShields on a fly ball. He eventually gave way to right-hander Vicente Palacios, the man Neagle is competing with for the fifth spot in the starting rotation.

"I was happy with the fact I got out of a jam and disappointed I gave up a run the next inning," he said.

He had experienced the same mixed emotions upon learning of his trade during spring training at the Twins' Fort Myers complex in Florida. Neagle was in the middle of calisthenics when he wassummoned by manager Tom Kelly. He assumed the worst, but never expected to hear he was changing teams.

"My first reaction was that I did something wrong," Neagle said. "He put his arm on my shoulder and said, '(General Manager Andy) MacPhail informed me that you have beentraded to the Pirates.' I was shocked. They had said the year beforethat they would never trade me, at least not in the near future.

"Once I got on the phone with (Pittsburgh general manager) Ted Simmons, he said, 'You're going to be one of our pitchers. Don't worry about Buffalo or Portland or any minor-league ball. We've seen you pitch,and you don't belong there.' He told me I was going to be a big partof their plans, so it was like a blessing in disguise."

Not everyone viewed the trade with the same enthusiasm. Members of the Piratesand the local news media looked at the swap as a cost-cutting move, with Pittsburgh unloading a potential free agent and his $3.44 million contract in exchange for two low-budget prospects.

Catcher Mike LaValliere said, "I guess someone got St. Patrick's Day confused withApril Fool's Day." Bob Hertzel, who covers the Pirates for The Pittsburgh Press, called Neagle and other newly acquired youngsters "fuzzy-faced kids." An Associated Press story referred to him as "Danny."

"When they told me I was traded, I figured it would be for a utility guy or something," Neagle said.

About all anyone knew of Neagle,besides that he came cheaply at $110,000 a year, was his early success. In 1990, he became the first minor league pitcher in four years to win 20 games while splitting time at Class A Visalia and Class AA Orlando. Last year, he was 9-4 at Class AAA Portland and later appeared in seven games with Minnesota, going 0-1.

None of which is enough to appease some Pirate fans.

"In Pittsburgh the other day, I heard some chants from the crowd when I came in the game about 'Where's Smiley,' or something like that. But mostly, people have seemed to welcome me," he said.

"Basically, I'm not going to put any more added pressure on myself. I'm just going to go out there and pitch, and hopefully, if I can get in the fifth spot and give them 12 or 13 wins,I think I've done my job."

Pitching coach Ray Miller expects the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Neagle to move into the rotation after April 21, when the schedule has fewer off-days. And Miller expects Neagle to handle the close scrutiny and inevitable comparisons to Smiley with relative calm.

"The first day I met him, I said, 'Hey Denny, you're not John Smiley, you're Denny Neagle. You earned your way to the big leagues by having a great minor-league career. You just switched major-league teams right at the time you were ready to go to the big leagues,' " Miller said.

"I also told him, 'Anybody who ever tells you that you don't throw hard, tell them to come see me.' "

Often referred to as a finesse pitcher, Neagle has his fastball registering between 88 and 91 mph, and he's mixing it well with his curveball, change-up and slider.

"He throws a bit harder than most people think hedoes, mainly because he's a fairly good-sized kid who's so smooth," Miller said. "Now, it's just a matter of me telling him what he can and can't throw to certain major-league hitters and how to set up pitches and how to use what he has and in the correct sequence. I think he's certainly intelligent enough to learn that."

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