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Futures Game caps tough week for Nats' Meyer

KANSAS CITY -- Alex Meyer was sitting in a restaurant in Lakewood, N.J., last Sunday, eating pizza with friends when he received the call. It was his father, who almost never called; the two preferred to text. Something was wrong.

On the other end of the line, Meyer's father told him to step outside. His voice cracked as he told him the news: Mark Lee, Meyer's 26-year-old first cousin and friend, had passed away at his home in Kansas City.

"I've been blessed where I haven't really gone through anything like that in my life before," Meyer said, his own voice fading as he retold the story.

Days earlier, Meyer had been cheerfully discussing dinner plans for this weekend with Lee, who moved to Kansas City several years ago. Meyer was the man of the hour, set to appear in Sunday's SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game as one of the Nationals' top pitching prospects. Lee wanted to arrange a family dinner at Oklahoma Joe's, a Kansas City BBQ institution.

So Saturday night, after Meyer spent his week traveling from Lakewood to Hagerstown, Md., to his childhood home in Indiana for the funeral, he made good on the promise. Flanked by his parents, brother, sister, girlfriend and girlfriend's parents, Meyer dined at Oklahoma Joe's in memory of Lee.

"It's been a long week," he said Sunday evening, following his Futures Game appearance. "The initial blow of it was tough. He's too young. He was 26 years old. It wasn't supposed to happen."

Earlier Sunday, Meyer stood by his locker as he discussed his status with the Nationals, as a bright, 6-foot-9 pitching prospect in a pitching-rich organization. He is a baseball fan. Whenever Meyer's Class A Hagerstown team is off, he tends to flip on the Nats game to watch the big club play.

Since the Nationals drafted him 23rd overall in last year's First-Year Player Draft, Meyer -- ranked No. 2 in Washington's farm system by -- had even crossed paths with Stephen Strasburg on occasion, picking his brain about soaring through the Minor Leagues and contributing to the big club.

Whatever advice Strasburg gave him certainly has not hurt. Focusing on repeating his mechanics as much as possible -- typically a challenge for taller pitchers -- Meyer has thrived throughout his professional debut, going 6-4 this season with a 3.32 ERA in 17 starts for Class A Hagerstown. But even those strong numbers are a bit misleading; over his last nine outings, he is 4-1 with a 2.17 ERA.

In many ways, Meyer's lanky 6-foot-9 frame has been both a blessing and a curse. The right-hander has used it to generate his mid- to upper-90s velocity, striking out 98 batters -- one shy of Jose Fernandez's South Atlantic League-leading total -- in 84 innings at Hagerstown.

Though he threw only six pitches in the Futures Game, Meyer showcased much of that talent, reaching 99 mph on the radar gun and retiring both batters he faced. But his mind was elsewhere.

Over the past few years, Meyer had grown closer to Lee, who began following his career closely, sometimes traveling to the East Coast to watch him pitch.

"He started getting a huge interest in baseball," Meyer said. "He cared so much about it."

Kauffman Stadium was supposed to be simply the latest baseball-themed reunion for the cousins. And in a way, it was.

"When I was running in from the bullpen, I just all of the sudden looked in the stands and everything came back to reality," Meyer said. "I knew he was out there with me. I knew he was watching me."

Washington Nationals