ST. LOUIS -- Before the sun would begin to rise across the Florida sky, Pat Neshek would embark on a long trip down Interstate 95 and begin to think.
Neshek would think about how to attack his opponents and impress on the mound. He wondered how he could best turn his Minor League contract and Spring Training invitation with the St. Louis Cardinals into a job in the Majors.
Neshek could have never thought about this.
"You've got to pinch yourself sometimes," Neshek said through a smile just above the steps of the Cardinals' dugout on a warm June morning. "It's just one of those seasons where it just makes you smile."
The sidearm-throwing reliever, at 33 years old, has reinvented himself. Neshek not only finds himself on a Major League roster, but as a top reliever in baseball with a resume worth All-Star consideration.
Neshek's numbers boast an astonishing 0.83 ERA in 32 2/3 innings spread across 37 outings, of which 34 have been scoreless. He went on a streak of 22 consecutive scoreless appearances in one stretch this season, and he has struck out 32 hitters while walking four. Neshek has the best WHIP among relievers at 0.55.
Yet just before Neshek started those hour-and-a-half trips each day to and from St. Louis' Spring Training complex in Jupiter, Fla., he nearly came up empty.
"I was kind of shocked because I didn't have a bad year last year, I just didn't pitch in key situations," Neshek said. "I was trying to relay that to everybody. I almost didn't even have a job. I didn't have many Minor League offers even."
Some teams showed interest, and then they didn't. The Brewers offered a Minor League contract, but no invitation to Spring Training. Neshek and his agent communicated with the Tigers and Phillies, among others, but to no avail. The Mets provided him with somewhat of a wake-up call.
"We want a guy that throws 91 [mph]," the team told Neshek through his agent.
His father, who made nearly half the trips this spring at 6:15 a.m. from Neshek's home in Melbourne, Fla., gave another. He told his son he needed to throw fewer sliders. Neshek took both messages to heart.
"This winter, it kind of set me off a little bit to get my fastball up and to work out of the windup and mix that pitch in," Neshek said. "That only makes my slider better, because they don't know what's coming, for the most part, and it's coming from a hard angle."
Neshek's reliance on his slider had become evident. He used it almost exclusively in 2012 with the A's, accounting for 83.5 percent of his pitches according to FanGraphs. The trend continued last season, as nearly 73 percent of Neshek's pitches were sliders.
"It's an awesome pitch," Neshek said. "But when you're throwing it every time, it doesn't confuse anybody."
Some alterations have made a world of difference. Neshek worked to add velocity on his fastball, which, in the past, has sat between 88-89 mph. He has also curtailed the use of that slider.
Neshek is now averaging 90.1 mph on his fastball, the best of his career. Combined with mixing up his pitches -- his slider average is down to 38.2 percent of his pitches, the lowest of his career -- the reinvented pitcher has found a new way to keep hitters off-balance.
"You look at a completely different pitcher a year ago even, as he was predominately a specialist," Cards manager Mike Matheny said. "We're bringing him in and feeling real comfortable with him against righties and lefties. That's only because he's really earned it."
Neshek spent half of 2010 and '11, three-quarters of '12 and a week last season at Triple-A. He sifted through offers, most with clear plans to send him back to the Minors, before ultimately signing on with the Cardinals as insurance.
Now, Neshek is a pitcher who touts All-Star-caliber statistics.
"Just knowing what I've been through -- being on top of the world, being in Triple-A where you're about to quit asking for your lease -- being back here is really rewarding," Neshek said. "I feel like I'm a lot better pitcher. Man, my stuff is there, my arm feels great. It's just nice being able to contribute at the highest level of the game with a winning ballclub and have a good role."
Neshek, who went to high school in Brooklyn Park, Minn., began his career with the Twins in 2006, and he was on the American League Final Vote ballot for the 2007 All-Star Game before coming up short.
Here Neshek is now, seven years later, after all those drives and all that thinking, with yet another chance. This one comes at 33 years old, with a Minor League contract turned into a Major League roster spot. It comes with the All-Star Game in his home state and at a stadium where his brother serves on the grounds crew.
Neshek will face a new battle if he is to make the National League roster. In the past 10 seasons, only 15 pitchers -- of 290 total -- have made an All-Star roster as a non-closer.
Neshek has thought about a lot. But this, he could have never imagined.
"I signed a Minor League deal and I'm putting up these type of numbers -- it's just pretty cool to even be in the conversation," Neshek said. "Who knows? It's just really cool for me to do what I'm doing and to be mentioned. If that happened, it would be unbelievable. If not, it's still unbelievable."
Alex Halsted is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.