MILWAUKEE -- Jimmy Nelson stood behind home plate, bowed his head and covered his face. Whatever he said in that moment, after fans and teammates had stood on Nelson’s 30th birthday and cheered his return to a Major League mound for the first time since he shredded his right shoulder
MILWAUKEE -- Jimmy Nelson stood behind home plate, bowed his head and covered his face. Whatever he said in that moment, after fans and teammates had stood on Nelson’s 30th birthday and cheered his return to a Major League mound for the first time since he shredded his right shoulder diving into first base at Wrigley Field 21 months ago, it was between Nelson and the inside of his cap.
On a human level, merely making it to that mound represented a feat of perseverance. But Nelson would not get the baseball result he was after.
“That was the best moment of the day, obviously,” he said.
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The first start of Nelson’s comeback to the big leagues lasted three innings and 65 pitches in an 8-3 loss to the Marlins on Wednesday at Miller Park. He was in good shape through two innings, allowing only an earned run, before a walk to opposing pitcher Sandy Alcantara set Nelson on the wrong path to start the third. After loading the bases with no outs, Nelson grooved a 91.9-mph fastball to Marlins third baseman Brian Anderson, who hammered it to left-center field for his first career grand slam and a 5-1 lead. The Marlins were on their way to a second straight rout.
Whatever their overall record, Miami has outscored Milwaukee the past two nights by a 24-3 margin and has scored at least eight runs in four straight games.
Nelson got a taste of that offensive potential in a 34-pitch inning in which he suddenly couldn’t command his breaking pitches. He was replaced by a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the frame after producing this line: three innings, four hits, five runs (four earned), three walks, two strikeouts.
“I hadn’t lost my command like that, phew, since like 2016,” Nelson said. “It’s something that’s kind of tough to wrap my head around right now. It really frustrated me. I’ve been working for this and thinking about how this day would play out for almost two years now. Obviously, it didn’t play out the way I envisioned it.”
Nelson will start again, manager Craig Counsell said, though the Brewers are working through the schedule. They are set through this weekend’s series against the Pirates at home. After that, they play two games in Nelson’s hometown of Houston against the Astros, followed by three at a spacious ballpark in San Francisco.
“He’s committed a lot to this,” Counsell said on Wednesday afternoon, in the runup to Nelson’s return. “There’s been more bad news than good news in this process, more work than reward in this process. I think everybody’s happy for him, really, and we’re excited to see him make the start.”
Counsell said to expect a different pitcher, considering Nelson’s surgery in the fall of 2017 required repairs to the labrum, rotator cuff and capsule. At that time, Nelson was the Brewers’ No. 1 starter and one of the big reasons the team was ahead of schedule in its rebuilding project. He was a power pitcher with a fastball that averaged 94.1 mph and topped out that season at 97.8 mph, according to Statcast.
Nelson believes he developed a better feel for pitching during his long rehab, as well as more bite on his curveball and slider. He threw the curveball a lot Wednesday -- 28 times, or 43 percent of his pitches -- but cast a handful of them up and out of the strike zone in the third inning. He threw 31 four-seam fastaballs, averaging 92.4 mph and topping out at 94 mph to Curtis Granderson leading off the game. In the long third inning, Nelson threw only one fastball in excess of 93 mph. Nelson suggested he may have been guiding the ball instead of throwing with conviction.
“I think the arm action, to me, looks a little different, probably in a good way,” Counsell said. “He knows that he’s not the same pitcher, and maybe what your best pitch was might not be your best pitch now. Or, what you liked to do before, you might have to do something different. That’s pitching -- for any pitcher -- and I think Jimmy knows that.”
The teammates who know Nelson best were all at the top step of the dugout when he and catcher Yasmani Grandal took the field Wednesday, with the rest of the Brewers position players holding back for a moment to give Nelson the spotlight.
“It was tragic news, but it turns into a great story,” said Zach Davies, who fought injuries of his own last year while Nelson was buried in rehab. “He has worked day and night to get here and into the position that he is in.”
Asked what might happen if Nelson were somehow hooked up to an adrenaline meter on Wednesday afternoon, Davies said, “I don’t think there’d be a needle anymore. It would just spin.”
Chase Anderson was feeling sort of the same way.
“I’m excited, anxious, nervous,” he said. “It’s going to be a whole new chapter in his career.”
Nelson will be in the video room early Thursday morning looking for ways to make sure the next chapter is a positive one. He sees no reason to believe Wednesday’s lapses in command will carry from start to start.
“Nothing necessarily came easy for me in this process or my career, really,” Nelson said “So just another hurdle to get over. I’ll be back here early to start that work.”
Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram and like him on Facebook.