Zach Neal made, what has so far been, the most important start of his seven year professional career on Monday. It wasn’t a playoff start or an All-Star Game. It wasn’t even his first start in the big leagues and it definitely wasn’t a start for a 2016 contender.
That start may change the course of his career, as he’s given another chance to start on Sunday.
Neal held the Orioles to one run on two hits and he didn’t allow a walk. He struck out one batter but his pitches were well-placed to induce a number of easy groundouts for the defense. His only real mistake was on a 2-2 pitch thrown in the fourth inning to Adam Jones who sent the 90 mph fastball over the left field wall.
That was the only run Baltimore scored in the game. The Orioles’ other hit of the night came on a double by Jonathan Schoop in the sixth, but Neal got J.J. Hardy to line out to right before it was decided that 72 pitches were enough on the night for Neal, who has pitched almost solely out of the bullpen when on the A’s big league roster this year.
Neal made a start completely unlike this one, back in May. He allowed seven runs and eight hits to the Seattle Mariners May 25 and been relegated to the either Triple-A Nashville or the bullpen for what likely would have been the remainder of the season if not for a long list of injuries to the A’s starting rotation.
With so many pitchers down, the team is basically making daily decisions on who will start game by game. Monday, Neal got the call. He delivered and earned himself another.
This could potentially give Neal is big break. Drafted in the 17th round of the 2010 amateur draft by the Miami Marlins he was released by the team in March 2013, after moving up through their farm system to the Double-A level. He signed as a free-agent with the A’s two days later.
Since then he has continued to slowly but surely move up through the minor league ranks. He was bounced around often going between the minor league levels multiple times per season. Neal was quietly unremarkable, yet, remarkable at the same time.
Over his minor league career, before being called-up by the A’s this season, Neal had an overall ERA of 3.62 over 153 appearances and 138 starts. He regularly pitched deep into games averaging approximately six innings per start.
The A’s should allow Neal to start for the remainder of the 2016 season and take a third, fourth, fifth hard look at Neal as a potential number four or five starter for next season.
In 2017 the rotation is likely to consist of young rookies, Kendall Graveman and Sonny Gray. Younger players can often struggle and sometimes need more time to develop in the minor leagues. Perhaps, 27-year-old Neal would be a match for one of three remaining rotation spots?
Even if he doesn’t make the A’s rotation, he should or could be looked at by other teams around the league. He’s had plenty of successful experience in the minor leagues, mostly as a starting pitcher. The right-hander hasn’t pitched as well in relief in both the minors and the big leagues and should not just be stuck in the Athletics bullpen.
Monday night he could have finally made a case that he is capable of being a starter at the back end of a big league rotation. If he can replicate the success he had Monday night against the Orioles in a few more starts this season, teams should begin to take notice.