Neu kind of closer
By Jack Magruder
SCOTTSDALE--He is 5-foot-10 and features a fastball that usually registers in the mid to high-80s. He does not scowl, skulk or appear to have an allergy to a razor blade.
Reds righthander Michael Neu is not your typical late-inning specialist.
Unless you are a stickler for results.
There, Neu (pronounced new) gives you the same thing as the power arms -- quality work featuring more strikeouts than innings pitched, and saves.
Neu has followed a strong summer season with impressive work in the Arizona Fall League, where he was 1-1, 3.94 with two saves for Scottsdale, a runaway leader in the Eastern Division.
His ERA did not crack 2.00 until an aberration on Nov. 9, when he gave up four runs and three home runs in suffering his first loss of the season.
Neu succeeds by throwing strikes, locating his pitches and blending a Trevor Hoffman-class changeup with his fastball and overhand 12 to 6 curveball. His changeup, delivered with precisely the same arm speed as his other stuff, comes in at 73-74 mph.
"He's real tough with that changeup,'' said Scottsdale hitting coach Brook Jacoby, who was the hitting coach at Triple-A Louisville and thus had a first-hand look at Neu the final three months of the summer season after his promotion from Double-A Chattanooga.
"He has a lot of confidence in that pitch. It makes his fastball look like it's 95. That's the key, keeping the hitters off-balance. He's done a good job of that.''
Scottsdale catcher Robby Hammock (Diamondbacks) has seen enough of Neu to know he does not want to hit against him.
"It's an unbelievable changeup. His arm speed, plus his ability to throw it for a strike whenever he wants it's tough, man. Real tough,'' Hammock said. "Then his fastball, he can definitely run it in on somebody. And he has a good curve ball, pretty hard and pretty sharp. He has good stuff. His ability to throw them all for strikes makes him so tough.''
Neu has 21 strikeouts in his 16 AFL innings, continuing a trend that has played out through a pro career that started at Class A Rockford (formerly of the Midwest League) after he was a 29th-round draft choice out of the University of Miami in 1999. He was the Hurricanes' closer as they won the College World Series, although he had been a starter in high school and at Sacramento City College before that.
He had 24 saves with Class A Clinton in 2000, when he had 95 strikeouts in 69 innings, and added 21 saves for Class A Mudville in 2001, when he had 102 strikeouts in 65 innings. Neu was 1-0, 1.33 with seven saves and 38 strikeouts in 27 innings at Chattanooga the first six weeks of 2002 before being promoted to Louisville.
"It's just an honor to be out here for me to play with a lot of these good players,'' Neu said of his Fall League experience. I'm trying to do the best I can.''
While Neu was generally pleased with his summer season, his first above the Class A level, he said he "didn't finish as strong as I would have liked to. I was really excited to come out here and maybe do a little bit better and finish on a little bit better note on the year than how I ended. The last couple of weeks I wasn't as satisfied as I would have liked to have been.''
Neu, 24, has a good feel for his changeup because he has thrown it most of his career unlike some pitchers, who develop it later. It has not been a primary weapon until recently, however.
"I don't throw really hard, but in college and my first year in pro ball I could get away with my velocity, which is maybe 86-88," Neu explained. "When you play against some of these better hitters, that velocity isn't as overpowering. So a second or third pitch is pretty important. And my changeup has really helped me out.
"There are a lot of good pitchers in the big leagues that use the changeup a lot--Trevor Hoffman, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Denny Neagle. It's fun to watch those guys pitch and see them be successful with it. Hopefully I can eventually have success at the big league level using it.''
Although relatively new to late-inning situations, Neu relishes the role of closer.
"That's why you play, so you can be a player that makes an impact in the game,'' he said. "I like doing it and I feel comfortable doing it, but definitely the goal is to pitch in the big leagues, whether it be close, setup, middle relief, even start. I would do anything to help the team win. I'll be happy to pitch in any role.''
Phoenix lefthander Mike Gonzalez (Pirates) did not allow a run in his first 12 appearances through Nov. 9, striking out 22 in 16 innings while giving up eight hits and five walks. Gonzalez, a 30th round draft pick in 1997, has averaged a hair more than a strikeout every nine innings in his six minor league seasons. He was 8-4, 3.80 at Double-A Altoona this season.
Phoenix won seven games in a row starting Nov. 2, although the run might be too late to catch Scottsdale, which entered the final 10 days of the regular season with a five-game lead.
Scottsdale righthander Bobby Jenks (Angels), attempting to defend his league strikeout title, leads the league with 43 strikeouts. He had 49 last season and should have two more starts. Because of the yearly turnover, repeating is rare. The only other player to lead the league in consecutive seasons in any category, hitting or pitching, is James Mouton, who had seven triples in 1992 and 10 in 1993 while playing in Tucson. The league began play in 1992.
After going 4-for-4 with his second homer in two days Nov. 9, Scottsdale first baseman Ken Harvey (Royals) threatened league hitting records for batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Harvey was hitting .516-6-31 with a .571 on-base percentage and an .800 slugging percentage. Scott Pose set the AFL records for batting average (.434) and on-base percentage (.506) with Scottsdale in 1993. Hank Blalock set the league slugging percentage record (.713) for Peoria last season.
Grand Canyon first baseman Adam LaRoche (Braves) and outfielders Gabe Gross (Blue Jays), and Ryan Langerhans (Braves) hit consecutive homers off Neu in the seventh inning of the Rafters' 9-5 victory over the Scottsdale on Nov. 9.
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