ATLANTA -- Signed with the reputation of being a slider-throwing, right-handed specialist, Pat Neshek has carved himself a more expansive role in the Cardinals' bullpen with the rediscovery of his fastball.
For the first time since returning from 2007 Tommy John surgery, Neshek, according to data compiled by fangraphs.com, has thrown his fastball more than 50 percent of the time through his first 16 appearances this season. It is a sharp departure from his days as a slider-dependent pitcher with Oakland.
Last year, 73 percent of the pitches Neshek threw were sliders. His fastball percentage sat at 17 percent. It was even lower in 2012, when Neshek threw 10 percent fastballs and 84 percent sliders. With a desire to play a prominent role in the bullpen this year, Neshek used Spring Training to get that fastball sharp once again.
"A lot of this game is getting ahead of guys and then forcing them to swing at what they don't want to swing at when you get ahead of them," Neshek said. "That's kind of what I've been focused on, and it's worked.
"I'd like some of the A's guys, like the pitching coach, to see that. Last year, he was always like, 'You need to throw your fastball.' The catchers would always call sliders there, and I wasn't comfortable doing that. But you get two months into the season and you don't want to change much. I wasn't getting consistent work. It was one of those things where I would pitch once a week, and it was tough to get into any kind of groove. But here, [manager Mike Matheny] is getting me out there a lot."
Nesheks' fastball velocity -- at an average of 89.7 mph -- is also at its highest post-surgery point.
"I'm really happy about it, because it just makes the slider that much better," Matheny said. "He's got that slider in his pocket that he can throw whenever he needs to. The fastball has been a pleasant surprise as much to him, I think, as it is to us."
Matheny has found a niche for Neshek, who trails only Kevin Siegrist in appearances among Cardinals relievers. Seeing that Neshek can be effective as more than a right-on-right specialist, Matheny has routinely called upon Neshek to enter mid-inning and get out of a jam. It is similar to the role Seth Maness held a year ago, and it's a welcome change for Neshek, who did not pitch in many significant spots a year ago.
"When you don't have a role and aren't getting any usage, it's hard to get motivated," said Neshek, who has stranded 36 percent of inherited runners. "Last year was not fun for me. ... When you're out there with meaning behind the game, I get pumped up for that. It makes me want to work harder, go in and watch video, stuff I didn't really do much of last year."
Neshek has long been tough against right-handed hitters, which is why the Cardinals are not much surprised to see righties hitting just .114 off him. The welcome change is that lefties aren't having success either. Entering Tuesday, left-handed batters had a .167 average against Neshek.
Neshek's changeup has been particularly effective in those matchups.
"The changeup is something I didn't think he had," Matheny said. "We're fortunate that we just threw him into situations [during Spring Training] to see what he could do, realizing that we already had one specialist [lefty Randy Choate] down in the bullpen. He got to see a lot of lefties and was very effective. I think he's going to continue."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less