The average age of pitchers in the New York-Penn League typically hovers around 21. Of course, there are always a handful of hurlers far younger or older than the mean. One of this year's outliers is Jamestown's Matthew Neil
A right-hander out of Brigham Young University, Neil will turn 25 before the season's out, making him one of the oldest players in the circuit.
There's a reason for Neil's tardiness in arriving on the professional scene, however. After high school, he spent two years in New York as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
"My oldest sister passed away when I was 18, and it put a bit of a hardship on our family," said Neil. "So having the Church in my life really helps me and gives me strength to realize that this life isn't just about partying every day and doing what you can to be the richest guy around. There's a lot more to it, and it's the people that you get to know.
"So just having that, and the experience with my sister, and the example of my parents growing up, I just wanted to go out and share the message of the Church with other people as well. So that's what I did out in New York, and for two years I didn't even touch a baseball."
Neil served in Queens and Long Island from April 2006 to April 2008 before returning home. In the fall of 2008, after a lengthy hiatus from baseball, he resumed his career as a walk-on at BYU.
"I knew I could play with those guys. I knew I had the body, the arm for it," said Neil. "After not throwing a ball for two years, I came and showed up at the tryouts and hit 90 on the radar gun. And the coaches looked at me and said, 'You know, this guy's 6-foot-6 and he just hit 90. I think we'll give him a shot.'"
After three seasons in Provo, Neil was selected by the Florida Marlins in the 29th round of this year's Draft. He was assigned to Jamestown, where he is 1-2 with a 3.13 ERA in 31 2/3 innings over seven starts. His most recent outing, last Friday at Batavia, was his best: five scoreless innings, three hits, nine strikeouts and no walks.
For the season, Neil has used his four-pitch repertoire -- four-seam fastball, circle change, slider and spike curveball -- to fan a team-leading 33 batters while issuing just two walks.
"I feel like whenever I'm locked in and ready to go, I can throw the ball within an inch or two of where I want it," Neil said. "I'd rather take my chances against them trying to hit it, rather than walking them. If I get [a] 3-1 or 3-2 [count], I'm going to throw it -- it'll be low, I'll work low still -- but I'm going to throw it middle part of the plate, maybe outer half, but I'm not going to try to throw it on the black with three balls. I'm going to force them to earn their place on base."
Neil may be older than the rest of his teammates, but he knows that the experience gained in his time away from baseball was worth the delay to his career.
"I feel like it helps me more than anything," said Neil. "One, I learned Spanish [on the mission], and there's a few guys on our team who don't really speak any English, so I feel like I can connect with those guys. And also just being older, I've got a little more life experience. I've lived away from home. I lived on my own basically for two years in New York, and I've done college.
"So I have the life experience to know people for who they are and not judge them too quickly, and just get to know people. I feel like it's helped me in the clubhouse to be able to get to know my teammates and have fun, to be more of a people person, get to know them and just enjoy the time. I feel like I've meshed and mixed in with these guys rather well."
Off with a bang: Hudson Valley's Ryan Carpenter, Tampa Bay's seventh-round pick in this year's Draft, had a professional debut to remember, no-hitting Auburn for five innings Wednesday before coming out of the game. Only two batters reached base against the 20-year-old left-hander.
Welcome home: Staten Island's Cito Culver, a native of Rochester, N.Y., returned to Western New York this week for the first time as a professional when the Yankees visited Batavia. Culver, New York's first-round pick in the 2010 Draft, celebrated his homecoming in style, slugging his first two home runs of the season and finishing with four RBIs in a 10-1 win Wednesday.
Déjà vu: After joining the team two weeks into the season, Batavia's Joseph Bergman embarked on a 22-game hitting streak, the longest in the league this year. It's the second year in a row the second baseman from the College of Charleston put together a lengthy streak at the start of his time with the Muckdogs: in 2010, he walked in the only plate appearance of his first game, then hit in 14 straight from June 19 to July 6.