Neverauskas taking advantage of final chance

March 10th, 2020

BRADENTON, Fla. -- sat back in his chair, scanning the room from his corner of the Pirates’ clubhouse at LECOM Park. The Lithuanian reliever looked around, read off the names above each locker and stopped to mention Gregory Polanco and Jose Osuna, who also signed with the Bucs in 2009.

Otherwise, Neverauskas couldn’t find anybody who’s been around here longer than he has.

“It’s my 11th Spring Training with the Pirates organization. Four big-league camps, seven Minor League Spring Trainings,” he said. “I’m not a veteran in the big leagues. I don’t feel like a vet in here, but I’ve been here so long.”

This is a pivotal Spring Training for Neverauskas, who is out of Minor League options. His fastball clocks in at 96-97 mph. His high-spin curveball has been hard to hit, even in the Majors. He was lights-out in Triple-A in 2017-18. But after 59 appearances for the Bucs over the last three years, the 27-year-old is sitting on an unsightly 6.71 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP.

Heading into the offseason, there was little reason to believe the 6-foot-3 right-hander would be back in Pirates camp this spring and even less reason to expect he’ll suddenly become the effective reliever Pittsburgh once viewed him to be. The Bucs’ previous regime didn’t recall Neverauskas from Triple-A when active rosters expanded last September, even as they were claiming relievers off waivers left and right.

But with a new regime came another chance. Take a look at the Pirates’ moves this offseason, particularly the pitchers they chose to retain, and you’ll see they expressed a clear preference for raw stuff. They held on to pitchers with big velocity and high-spin breaking balls, hoping that pitching coach Oscar Marin and bullpen coach Justin Meccage will be able to get more out of them.

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“We have some insight as to the pitch type, pitch qualities and what sort of potential that brings in terms of missing bats and getting weak contact, and we can try to connect someone’s raw stuff to potential outcomes -- even if the outcomes haven’t happened yet, in some cases, on the Major League level,” general manager Ben Cherington said. “No guarantee they’ll happen, but there are guys that we think have the raw equipment to be better than they have been at the Major League level, and we probably tried to fall on the side of keeping those guys as long as possible, giving them every chance.

“Plenty of examples around the league with guys who, at some point, they figure out one thing and they get more comfortable or confident or a longer opportunity, and all of a sudden, the stuff starts playing better. We hope that’s the case for him and for other guys here, too.”

Spring Training results are difficult to judge, especially for relievers, but there have been signs of Neverauskas' ability. Last Saturday, he worked a perfect inning with one strikeout against the Yankees. But consistency remains an issue. On Tuesday, he walked the first batter he faced then gave up an RBI double to Willi Castro before getting out of the eighth inning in the Pirates’ 4-1 loss to the Tigers at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla.

Like just about every pitcher in Pirates camp, Neverauskas is being provided with new data-driven insight into how his pitches play. He’s been around long enough to recite Pittsburgh’s old pitching mantra -- “the ‘downhill down’ thing, producing ground balls,” he said -- but the Bucs aren’t all about sinkers and ground balls anymore.

Now, Neverauskas is focusing on throwing his high-90s fastball up in the zone, spinning his curveball down in the zone and searching for a more consistent release point so hitters can’t easily identify those two offerings. The Pirates are also trimming his arsenal, shelving his sinker and changeup and making more judicious use of his cutter than in years past.

“Let’s be better at executing his two best pitches, his four-seamer and his curveball,” Meccage said. “In the past, he’s had four or five different pitches. We’re trying to get him to consistently execute his two best pitches.”

Since he’s out of options, Pittsburgh can’t send Neverauskas to Triple-A without running him through waivers. If he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, his long run with the Bucs might last only a few more weeks.

“That I’m out of options isn’t important. I just go day by day. It’s baseball. It’s business,” Neverauskas said. “One day, you could be here. The next day, you could be pitching on the other side. Don’t look at what’s going to happen or when it’s going to happen. Just trying to put myself in position to compete for a spot here or somewhere else, if something happens.”