Neagle stuffs doubters, again Pitcher: The Pirates lefty from Arundel High still draws yawns from radar gun, but is closing in on his second straight All-Star berth.

June 10, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

PITTSBURGH -- Denny Neagle knows the curse of the slowballer. No matter how well you pitch, the scouts sit behind home plate reading the radar gun and shaking their heads.

Neagle knows all about it. He made the mistake of reading one of those scouting report books after he won 13 games last year and earned a place on the National League All-Star team. To hear a couple of unnamed scouts tell it, he was a one-year wonder who would be hard-pressed to replicate his 1995 success with that so-so team and that so-so stuff.

"They said I was kind of a Houdini," said Neagle, who escaped from Arundel High in 1986 and eventually finessed his way into the Pittsburgh Pirates' starting rotation.

"In one way they meant it in a flattering way, because of the year that I had and the team I was on, but they also said that I really had my work cut out for me trying to do it again."

Guess again. Neagle is doing it even better. He's 7-2 with a 3.39 ERA, and he's more than likely to make his second straight All-Star appearance next month at Veterans Stadium.

And he's not the least bit offended that some scouts are unimpressed with his stuff. That means he's fooling them, too.

"Those kinds of comments motivate me," he said. "Not just to prove the naysayers wrong, but to prove to myself that I belong here. That's really what it's all about."

Rewind to the 1995 All-Star Game. Neagle really didn't know whether he belonged there. He was having a good year, but the rules say that each club has to be represented by at least one player and he was the only representative from a very thin ballclub. It was a thrill, of course, but it also was a bit uncomfortable.

"Last year, I wasn't so much awed as nervous," he said. "I didn't know what kind of reception I would get as a young player, but all of them made you feel welcome, like one of the guys. If I ever get to another one, I'll know what to expect. Knock on wood, if I make it again, I don't think I'll be awed by it the next time."

No reason to be. Neagle isn't having a John Smoltz year, but if you take their respective teams into consideration, his numbers are almost as impressive. He doesn't have to knock on wood. He just has to shake some recent back spasms and win a couple of more games during the next three weeks to earn his second consecutive All-Star appearance.

He gets it done with a fastball that barely breaks through the Neagle mid-80s and a two-speed changeup that keeps hitters off-balance. Neagle looks so hittable that Rockies manager Don Baylor was furious at the way his team came up short Friday night at Three Rivers Stadium.

Is this guy Cool Hand Fluke, or what?

Pitching coach Ray Miller, who handled a couple of terrific finesse pitchers while he worked under former Orioles manager Earl Weaver, doesn't think so.

"He's just a good major-league pitcher," Miller said. "He's sort of right in between a Scotty McGregor and a Mike Flanagan. He has that variety like Flanagan and the great changeup like McGregor. And his velocity is right in between the two of them.

"But in my heart, he's not a finesse pitcher, because he gets people out with his fastball. I think he could go fastball/slider into the seventh inning against anybody because he has that great changeup."

Miller has watched Neagle make the transition from a struggling minor-league prospect -- trying to do too much with too little velocity -- into a surprisingly mature 27-year-old pitcher who knows how to make the most of his particular talents.

"He does a lot of things that make me proud of him," Miller said. "He had probably his worst outing in Colorado -- not that he pitched that poorly -- but he came back here and he adjusted."

Neagle came back home last week and pitched just well enough to beguile the big-hitting Rockies lineup, which had come out of the first game with a combined .407 batting average against him. He obviously likes a challenge, whether it's one of baseball's best-hitting clubs or one of the game's top starting pitchers.

It's easy to focus on his 1995 success, but Neagle insists that '94 was his breakthrough year. He came to Pittsburgh in the 1992 trade that sent veteran starter John Smiley to the Minnesota Twins, and spent two undistinguished years as a spot starter/middle reliever before winning a regular place in the rotation.

He was 9-10 with a 5.12 ERA in 1994, but he benefited from the regular work and boosted his self-confidence with an impressive victory over perennial Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux early in the season.

He started to do that kind of thing more regularly last year and won a place on the All-Star team with a 9-4 start. He finished the season 13-8 on a team that finished 28 games under .500.

"It's no longer a case of picking up the paper and seeing that a Greg Maddux is going to pitch against you and saying to yourself, 'Oh well, that's one more loss,' " Neagle said. "I feel like now I have decent stuff and I can compete with anybody they send out there."

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