5/6/2014 8:04 P.M. ET
Fastball gives Neshek a boost in bigger bullpen role
By Jenifer Langosch / MLB.com
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."
Miller to focus on fastball command before start
ATLANTA -- Shelby Miller will carry a four-game winning streak into his next start, scheduled to come in Pittsburgh on Sunday. He intends to make sure that he takes the mound with improved fastball command, too.
Frustrated by inconsistent command of his fastball, particularly when throwing it to the third-base side of the plate, Miller said he plans to throw about 40 fastballs in his between-starts bullpen session this week to try to get a better feel for the pitch. The righty has too frequently been missing off the plate with it.
"That's my best pitch, and I feel like if I have that, everything else falls into place," Miller said. "It will come along. It's still early, and I'm still trying to grind out some of the mechanical issues."
Though the Cardinals have won four of the seven starts Miller has made, the 23-year-old right-hander has not felt fully in sync in any of those outings. The walks (23 in 39 1/3 innings) are an indication of that, as is the fact that Miller has yet to pitch into the seventh.
Bourjos sits as Matheny continues to shuffle lineup
ATLANTA -- Peter Bourjos' two-hit game on Monday did not earn him the start a day later, though Cardinals manager Mike Matheny indicated that Bourjos would be back in center field against Braves left-hander Mike Minor in Wednesday's series finale.
Matheny cited a need to keep Jon Jay involved when asked about his center-field decision, a topic that has become a near daily one while a three-man center-field timeshare continues. Jay has drawn the majority of starts recently against right-handed pitchers.
"We've had different guys out there," Matheny said. "That's not necessarily our goal. That's not how we want to do it. We'd love to have a lineup that we write in, and 162 games later, we're right where we want to be. But we've been struggling to figure it out.
"Our team is better when everybody is clicking. We have to get them going. We have to give them a chance."
Matheny also made a change at second base on Tuesday, this one based singularly on matchup. Mark Ellis, 1-for-14 in his career against Braves starter Gavin Floyd, sat in favor of Daniel Descalso, who had two hits in three career at-bats against the Atlanta righty.
The start was Descalso's sixth this season, and first since April 27. The lineup was the 29th different one used by the Cardinals in 34 games.
"We're going to need all these guys," Matheny said. "I hate saying it over and over again, but you hate going too long without giving them an opportunity to get in there more consistently than just one at-bat."
• Jason Motte made his second rehab appearance with Double-A Springfield on Tuesday, and he needed only six pitches to retire the side in order in the eighth inning. Motte began his rehab assignment on Sunday. This is his final step in a year-long recovery from Tommy John surgery.
• Springfield won its day game on Tuesday behind seven scoreless innings from lefty starter Kyle Hald. Hald (2-0) struck out seven, while allowing three hits and one walk in the outing. He was supported by solo homers from Cody Stanley and Rafael Ortega.
• Jake Westbrook, who retired after the 2013 season, reunited with several of his former teammates while visiting the Cardinals at Turner Field on Tuesday. He played a round of golf with some of them earlier in the day, too.
• The Cardinals announced that infielder Jonathan Rodriguez and left-hander starter Tim Cooney have been named the organization's Minor League Player and Pitcher of the Month for April. Rodriguez, playing for Springfield, hit .346 with a 1.059 slugging percentage, nine doubles, four homers and 15 RBIs during the month. Cooney went 3-1 with a 2.35 ERA in five starts for Triple-A Memphis.
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.