Thursday, April 22, 1999

Neagle takes one on chin, but still stands




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[neagle]
Denny Neagle reacts after giving up a first-inning homer.
(AP photo)

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        Denny Neagle will need some time. He did not leave the disabled list in midseason form, but in haste to make up for lost time. Unlike Stella, he does not have his groove back just yet.

        That is, of course, unless his goal is to pitch batting practice.

        The Cincinnati Reds' presumed ace made his delayed debut at Cinergy Field Wednesday night, and the results suggested he wasn't ready. Neagle pitched four innings against the New York Mets, yielding two home runs, hitting back-to-back batters and in debt to divine providence for allowing him to escape with a no-decision in the Reds' 7-4 comeback victory.

        But here's the good news for the home team: this guy is a real pitcher. A pro. A craftsman. Like any good counterpuncher, Neagle comes off the ropes with a clue. It may be weeks before the left-hander is able to attain his accustomed consistency, but beneath that bleached blonde hair is a brain.

        Bases loaded. Nobody out. Mets cleanup hitter Bobby Bonilla strolls to the plate with one home run already in the box score. It's the top of the third inning, and already Neagle is down by three runs because of two misplaced change-ups. Bonilla can be the toast of the tabloids with another big blow.

        Reds pitching coach Don Gullett jogs to the mound to advise his new protege that he's trying to do too much with his pitches, trying to locate them too perfectly instead of just letting the ball fly. In his eagerness to please his new employer, Neagle was neglecting some of what had made him successful.

        “It was like he was trying to cram three starts into one,” Gullett said. “That's human nature, being the competitor that he is.”

Advice heeded
        A young pitcher might hear Gullett's advice, but Neagle went an experienced step further. He actually heeded him. Even as he struggled to stay in the game, Neagle was able to exploit Bonilla's aggressiveness. He stopped trying to make the perfect pitch and let the ball fly. Bonilla would strike out on three pitches, the last a lethal changeup.

        “That is one of the things I learned in Atlanta,” Neagle said later. “You concentrate on making your pitches, no matter what the score or the count is. It's something Greg Maddux always preached. Sometimes it looks like I try too hard to throw a strike instead of making my pitch.”

        Pitching at the major-league level is as much about guile as it is about radar guns. A good hitter can crush a 90-mile-per-hour fastball if he knows it's coming or it lingers too long in the strike zone. The pitchers who prosper are the ones who are able to adjust when they don't have their best stuff. Guys like Denny Neagle.

        “He's got an idea,” said Reds manager Jack McKeon, who has no higher praise for a pitcher. “Being the first time out there (with the Reds), it was tough. He wanted to do well and he tried a little too hard. But he got his work in, we got a win, and we were encouraged with what we saw for four innings.”

High expectations
        When Reds General Manager Jim Bowden traded Bret Boone to Atlanta last November, sacrificing his leading run-producer in the name of pitching, it was on the theory that Neagle put the Reds' starting rotation on a par with any in the National League's Central Division.

        Before the game, behind the batting cage, Bowden was asked what he expected of Neagle after his abbreviated spring training and minor-league rehabilitation.

        “My expectation is six shutout innings,” Bowden said. “That's why we traded for him.”

        Neagle's shutout survived only three batters. Bonilla hit a two-run homer in the first inning, and Mets catcher Todd Pratt added a solo shot in the second. When Roger Cedeno led off the New York third by ripping a double into the left-field corner, Neagle responded by plunking Edgardo Alfonzo and John Olerud to fill the bases.

        Then he retired the last six hitters he faced.

        “I was chomping at the bit,” Neagle said later. “I think I got a little too excited ... I got out of my game plan.”

        A good pitcher can lose his way and still find himself. Denny Neagle knows where to look.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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