Just over a year into his professional career, pitcher-turned-infielder-turned-pitcher again Trey Nielsen has gotten an interesting perspective on the "Cardinal Way."
Primarily a position player in college, the 22-year-old right-hander made his first professional start on the hill Wednesday night, logging four hitless innings as Short-Season State College flirted with its first ever no-hitter in a 7-0 win over Vermont.
The Spikes' bullpen carried the no-hit bid into the eighth, with Anderson Gerdel logging three innings before passing the baton to Tyler Bray. It was Bray who allowed a one-out single to John Nogowski before registering a pair of strikeouts as State College held the Lake Monsters to one hit.
Nielsen, the son of former big league right-hander Scott Nielsen, walked one and struck out three in his eighth appearance of the season, slimming his ERA to 1.25.
"I was just told last week I'd be jumping into the rotation," the University of Utah product said. "I had to change up my routine a little bit. I just went in focusing on throwing strikes, going to work off my fastball."
The right-hander was selected by the Cubs in the 42nd round of the 2010 Draft out of high school as a pitcher but passed on signing to start a two-way career at Utah. His first two seasons, however, he stayed off the hill, working exclusively as an infielder.
Prior to his junior year, he returned to the mound, regaining and surpassing his high school form during the fall season and entering 2103 as the team's Sunday starter -- he was supposed to play first base on Fridays and Saturdays.
That plan changed when Nielsen sprained his ulnar collateral ligament a week before opening day. He made two starts and four appearances despite the sprain, posting a 6.00 ERA. He was able to maintain his velocity of 92-93 mph, but the injury hindered his follow-through, causing him to lose movement on all his pitches, especially his breaking ball.
"It was affecting my stuff and my location and my ability to finish my pitches," he said. "I rehabbed it and threw through it. ... The secondary stuff, it was hard to finish with the UCL."
Cardinals scouts had seen Nielsen throw in the fall, when his stuff was still sharp, and decided to take a stab at him in the 30th round of the 2013 Draft. Nielsen and the team came to terms, but during the hurler's physical, the team found the UCL wasn't just sprained, it had a tear in it.
St. Louis decided not to sign him.
"I flew down to Florida and, technically, I failed my physical," Nielsen said. "I flew back to Utah to keep my amateur status. ... I had every intention of going back to college."
That's when his Major League veteran father, who was representing his son, got creative. Scott Nielsen talked to the Cardinals about reworking the contract around a potential Tommy John surgery, and he and the team eventually agreed to a deal that would keep the signing bonus in escrow until Nielsen was healthy.
The right-hander underwent surgery shortly after the failed physical and put his name on a contract on July 11 -- the deadline for 2013 draftees to sign. The contract likely wouldn't have come together if not for the legwork done by Nielsen's father.
"He understood the process," the younger Nielsen said. "He's a businessman now and he studied up on that. The decision to have him as my representative was because he's been through the pro system and he also gets the business side, as well. That did help, really helped having him along my side through that process.
"He took care of the communication, did a great job for me. He has a baseball background and a business background. For communication purposes, that made things easier on both sides."
Nielsen spent the last year recovering, which included time working with fellow Cardinals rehabbers Jason Motte and Jaime Garcia. The time watching games in Spring Training and extended spring training helped Nielsen's baseball IQ, too.
"I actually think I've come back better, just as far as my understanding of pitching," he said. "I got to go early and watch and be around professionals when I first signed, and I hadn't had that professional experience yet. I was able to see guys, how they go about it."
On Wednesday, he said he succeeded mostly with good command of his fastball. The feel for his breaking ball was off, but the break is at least back to pre-injury form. He also was able to mix in a few good changeups, he said.
Nielsen expects to stay in the Spikes rotation the rest of the season. There, he hopes to apply what he learned in his time working with Motte, Garcia and others in the organization.
"Everything feels great. Everything's come back awesome," he said. "I'm confident in my stuff. I know I have the stuff to get outs. It's all come together since I've figured out the philosophy of pitching through those guys."