Neverauskas takes long road to Futures Game

Pirates' Lithuanian pitching prospect finding new success in bullpen

July 11th, 2016

SAN DIEGO -- There is no well-manicured outfield grass where Dovydas Neverauskas comes from. No second decks in the stands. No comfortable clubhouses like the one in which he stood at Petco Park on Sunday afternoon. Technically speaking, there are no baseball fields.

"Soccer fields. But, like, old soccer fields," Neverauskas said Sunday afternoon. "Not grass. Rocks."

Neverauskas traveled a long way from the gravel-filled fields of Vilnius, Lithuania, to the international stage of the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game at Petco Park on Sunday. The Pirates relief prospect pitched a scoreless eighth inning in the World Team's 11-3 win, with a Lithuanian flag stitched on to his brown and yellow jersey.

Baseball draws little interest in his home country -- far less than basketball, soccer or hockey, he said. His father, Virmidas, is trying to change that. Virmidas promotes the sport to Lithuanian children and coaches a handful of national, club and Little League teams; he was working in Spain on Sunday, the Czech Republic last week and Poland the week before.

"It's a busy summer, like always," Neverauskas said.

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But Neverauskas' summer plans might be the most direct avenue to popularizing baseball in Lithuania. The 23-year-old reliever is one call away from becoming the first born-and-raised Lithuanian in the Majors.

"Hopefully," he said. "We might get actual coaches from the Major Leagues there. Come to Lithuania for a month, maybe, and coach kids. Give them more experience, something to motivate them to keep progressing."

Neverauskas' father grew up playing baseball and followed his passion to a career in coaching. His mother was a basketball player. Neverauskas, standing 6-foot-3, said he isn't tall enough to have a chance in his mother's favorite sport.

So Neverauskas began playing baseball when he was 6 years old, and Virmidas served as his coach. He still does, occasionally critiquing Neverauskas' performance after watching his Minor League games online.

Neverauskas tagged along with his father during trips to America in 2006 and '07. He couldn't watch any Major League games on TV back home, but he attended an A's game in person in '06. He pitched in more competitive environments.

"It was one step forward," he said. "Playing here, better teams, better fields, a better experience."

Neverauskas attended the 2008 and '09 MLB European Academy camps in Italy. He signed with the Pirates in July '09, the first player to sign a professional baseball deal out of Lithuania. Former Pirates scout Tom Randolph discovered Neverauskas when Pittsburgh was actively seeking to unearth talent in places others seldom bothered to look: India, South Africa, the Netherlands and Lithuania.

"It was the frame we believed would turn into a strong body," general manager Neal Huntington said. "It was the way the arm worked, the life to the fastball, getting to know the young man and knowing there was some aptitude and drive in there."

Yet the Pirates also knew Neverauskas lacked experience. They knew his development would take time. They knew he would have to get used to an entirely new level of competition. He learned the last part on the mound.

"Back home, nobody could hit. Here, they actually can hit your fastball," he said. "I was like, OK, this is not going to be just throwing fastballs again. Gave up some bombs, too."

Living in the dorms at the club's Pirate City complex in Bradenton, Fla., Neverauskas didn't speak much English. He couldn't communicate with any of his teammates. He was unfamiliar with ingrained American baseball terms like PFP, short for pitchers' fielding practice.

He was homesick, and he wasn't making any progress toward his goal of pitching in the Majors. He spent three seasons in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. He struggled to a 6-12 record and 5.60 ERA as a 21-year-old starter in the Class A South Atlantic League in 2014.

"The first four, five years were slow," Neverauskas said. "Really slow."

Last year, the Pirates moved Neverauskas to the bullpen and watched him take off. This season, he zoomed through Double-A Altoona, got promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis and earned an invitation to the Futures Game, the annual gathering of the Minors' top prospects.

"We believed the arm was going to continue to grow and develop and continue to get refined -- and it has," Huntington said. "It'll be a really fun story if he continues to develop the way he is."

His English has significantly improved. He capably handled an onslaught of interviews before batting practice Sunday afternoon. He fits in better with his Minor League teammates, who call him "Never" for short.

His fastball has played up, sitting between 94-97 mph and touching 99, setting up his cutter and slider. Pitching out of the bullpen has changed the course of Neverauskas' career.

Now, there is a clear path for him to reach the Majors and, at the end of it, an opportunity for baseball to take hold in his home country.

"Definitely," he said. "I'm here right now, you know?"