Most of my time as a sports blogger has been spent writing about the Detroit Tigers. During that time, there were few relievers I feared pitching against Detroit more than Pat Neshek in 2006 and 2007.
In five appearances vs. the Tigers in 2006, Neshek allowed one run over 6.1 innings for a 1.42 ERA. He struck out 10 batters while walking none. Overall, Neshek had a 2.19 ERA in 32 appearances with a rate of 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings.
In 2007, Neshek emerged as one of the best relievers in MLB. He compiled a 2.94 ERA in 74 appearances, striking out 74 batters in 70.1 innings. Against the Tigers, he pitched nine times, allowing three runs with 10 strikeouts in nine innings.
But nothing Neshek did in the first two years of his career—against the Tigers or MLB at large—was as impressive as what he did while pitching in Game 1 of the ALDS for the Oakland Athletics on Saturday (Oct. 6).
You very likely know the story by now of what Neshek and his wife went through last week.
Less than 24 hours after giving birth to their first child—one of the most special moments in the life of any couple—Pat and Stephanee Neshek lost their newborn son. No cause of death was known, no explanation given for the Nesheks' happiest moment soon being followed by the most tragic.
The world must have made very little sense to Neshek on Wednesday. Presumably, that's why he was back with his teammates and ready to pitch for the A's on Saturday in Game 1 of their ALDS against the Tigers. Both Neshek and his wife needed something to make sense again, something to hang on to when the world must have seemed indescribably cruel.
In the previous paragraph, I said Neshek was "ready to pitch" for the A's. That's impossible to know, of course. He probably wasn't ready to pitch. Who could be ready to do anything in light of experiencing such a tragedy?
I can only imagine Neshek sometimes felt like the world needed to stop for him and acknowledge what he'd been through. Or perhaps he needed the world around him to just keep going on as usual so he could try to find a semblance of normalcy just three days after nothing could have felt normal for him.
Anyone who saw Neshek warming up during the seventh inning of Saturday's game likely felt something for him, a twinge of sympathy or a jolt of empathy. How could Neshek possibly pitch after what he's been through?
It wasn't a question of whether or not Neshek should pitch. He should do whatever he wanted or needed to do to cope with the loss of his son. It was a question of whether or not anyone could do the same thing if confronted with such circumstances.
I suppose I shouldn't attempt to speak for everyone, however. I'm speaking for myself. That's what was going through my mind. That's why my stomach seized when I saw Neshek on my television screen. I'm presuming many of you had similar feelings.
Neshek came in for the A's with one out and two runners on in the seventh inning. The Tigers had a 3-1 lead and could have padded that lead with a base hit. Oakland manager Bob Melvin wasn't just putting Neshek into the game during a meaningless situation (if there's such a thing during a playoff game) to let him settle in and clear his mind.
As he revealed after the game, however, Neshek's mind was anything but clear. Really, how could it be?
"It was definitely tough down there,'' Neshek said, as quoted by USA Today's Bob Nightengale. "I was thinking about him the whole time.
"It sounds so cliché, but it felt like he was looking down on me, helping me.''
Neshek got Oakland out of its seventh-inning jam, getting Omar Infante and Austin Jackson out on eight pitches. He did exactly what he was supposed to do, what he's done all season, as his 1.37 ERA in 24 appearances demonstrates: He kept the A's in the game.
For at least a moment, maybe the world made some sense again for Neshek and his wife. He tapped the special patch on his right arm that the team wore on its jerseys in tribute to his son. I can't imagine there's anyone who watched that moment and wasn't affected somehow.
Maybe you thought about what Neshek had endured. Perhaps you looked at your child and imagined what it would have been like to lose him or her. Maybe you thought about loss you've experienced in your own life.
Again, I can't speak for you. I'm speaking for myself here.
In that moment, I thought about the baby niece that's become such a significant part of my life over the past 20 months. I thought about my sister and how such a tragedy would have affected her.
I remembered losing my father and sitting in a dark room with my family the day after it happened, much like Neshek described doing with his wife in the hours after they lost their baby. I remembered how family and friends have never been more important.
Almost involuntarily, I clapped for Neshek in my living room—even though he was pitching against the team I grew up watching, the team I've covered as a sportswriter for years.
It was one of the most courageous pitching performances I've ever seen as a sports fan. No matter what happens, Neshek has already made this ALDS between the Tigers and Athletics extremely memorable.
Follow @iancass on Twitter