Draft prospect Neighbors keeps cool in season debut

February 19th, 2024

MESA, Ariz. -- Kansas State’s Tyson Neighbors eagerly pounded his bright pink glove as he stepped out of the left field bullpen at Sloan Park and jogged to the mound with the Wildcats holding on to a three-run lead in the ninth inning.

After taking a backseat for the first two games in the MLB Desert Invitational, MLB Pipeline’s No. 69 Draft prospect made his season debut on Sunday afternoon against Georgetown, but it didn’t come without facing adversity.

Neighbors, one of the most coveted relievers in this year’s Draft, flashed his hard-throwing abilities by popping the radar gun at 94 mph against the first batter he faced but issued a walk to start the inning. Against the next hitter, Neighbors only delivered three pitches before giving up a home run that landed toward the top of the left field berm. Suddenly, Georgetown only needed one run to tie up the game.

Neighbors didn’t panic. Instead, he called an audible. The right-hander distanced himself from his usual heat and focused on throwing his offspeed pitches. The result? Retiring the next three batters with ease, striking out two of them with the last batter whiffing on three pitches en route to a 7-6 win over the Hoyas.

“College baseball is at a high level right now there's going to be some good hitters,” Kansas State coach Pete Hughes said. “... I was glad Tyson kept his composure. He's come a long way with that. It's all about the next pitch and he settled right in and got three straight outs.”

Neighbors’ stock as a whole has elevated. The Royse City, Texas, native went from under-the-radar recruit to one of the most coveted relievers in this year’s Draft. Last season, he led the Big 12 Conference with 11 saves while posting a 1.85 ERA with 86 strikeouts in 48 2/3 innings.

Neighbors has three pitches, headlined by his fastball that sits at 93-95 mph, an 81-84 mph slider with a high spin rate and an upper 80s cutter. Scouts compare him to Orioles pitcher and nine-time All-Star Craig Kimbrel, but Neighbors likes to learn from a variety of pitchers.

“I'm always up late at night just watching videos of all different types of right-handed pitchers,” Neighbors said. “I’ll even listen to left-handed pitchers. I think there's a piece of knowledge that everybody has that I could benefit from.”

One of those pitchers is Cubs left-hander Jordan Wicks, who played at Kansas State from 2019-2021. With the team playing at Chicago's Spring Training home, the No. 10 Cubs prospect shared a simple message to the team: “It’s a big year, but go have fun.”

“It’s awesome that he was a part of our program and still comes and hangs out with us and talks to us like he's still one of us,” Neighbors said. “He's always been a Kansas State Wildcat, so it's good to have that guy in your corner.”

Wicks became the highest-picked Kansas State player when the Cubs selected him No. 21 overall in 2021. If Neighbors can give an encore performance of last year, he could come close to those heights.

He has the hype coming in, as he was one of five Big 12 pitchers to earn a spot on the initial Watch List for the Stopper of the Year Award, which is given to the top relief pitcher in NCAA Division I Baseball.

But if there is something uncovered from Neighbors' outing in Mesa, it’s that when adversity strikes, he’ll be ready to make the adjustments to get that final out for his team.

“I'm just a competitor,” Neighbors said. “I can give the last three, six or nine outs and do whatever role you want me to be, I'd be confident and comfortable in that.

“When my number is called, I'm going to go do exactly what I'm told and compete for the team.”