Oakland's Neu In Pitching Heaven

Imagine being a rookie in the big leagues who uses his arm for a living heading to the ballpark everyday and getting to share the clubhouse spread, weight room and the intimacies of pitching with some of the game's premier hurlers. Not a bad deal, huh? That's just a tidbit of a day in the life of Oakland A's right-handed reliever Michael Neu.

Neu, the star closer on the 1999 University of Miami national championship squad, is making the most of his first go around in the Major Leagues and apparently putting into use the good fortune of wearing the same uniform as Oakland's pitching ace trio of Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mike Mulder.

Since earning a roster spot out of spring training Neu has fit right in with the pitching-rich A's and displayed the credentials that could make him Oakland's closer of the future. In 18 appearances out of the A's bullpen this season, Neu is tied for fifth on the staff with a 2.55 earned run average and has allowed 23 hits and seven earned runs while recording 16 strikeouts in 24.2 innings pitched.

Last night, in his most recent outing, Neu picthed a perfect 8th inning in a 13-0 A's loss to Seattle. But in his four appearances prior to the series against the Giants, Neu had been touched for just a single run.

"Just getting the opportunity to pitch in the Major Leagues is a blessing and something that I was always dreamt of," says Neu, who signed professionally with the Cincinnati Reds in 1999 after being drafted in the 29th round and playing just one season for the Hurricanes.

"But to be able to get the chance to do it with so many great pitchers surrounding me is just unbelievable. I would have loved for things to work out in Cincinnati but that's in the past and I really feel that this is a great situation for me. I couldn't be happier."

Despite long stretches in appearances and his short time in Oakland, Neu is starting to develop the reputation of a ‘hard-nosed' pitcher and someone who doesn't object to pitching everyday no matter what kind of situation it might be in. And that kind of attitude goes a long way, especially in the company of Zito, Hudson and Mulder.

Neu has not overwhelmed the A's star pitchers with a lot of questions but has taken advantage of his current position to pick his spots. Not a bad idea considering that Zito, Hudson and Mulder are a combined 174-70 in 13 total seasons of Major League service. Zito is coming of a 23-5 record in 2002, which netted him the Cy Young Award, while Hudson won the award in 2000 after posting 20 wins.

Although Neu says that all three of the A's All-Star pitchers are different from Zito's quirkiness to Hudson's demeanor before a start to Mulder's silence, just being around them has been quite a learning experience.

Neu has been a first hand witness to the meticulous preparation habits of Zito, who wears a watch that allows him to follow a daily routine leading up to a start. Despite being somewhat alarmed at Hudson's antics on the days of his starts, Neu has become more impressed with the pitcher's intensity on the mound. Mulder, considered the quietest of the three, is also into detail, according to Neu.

"All three of guys have something to offer," Neu says. "I've learned a great deal in my short time here. They all have an incredible work ethic and take tremendous intensity to the mound every time. It's amazing how young and determined those guys are."

Even sitting in the A's dugout three hours before a game Neu can see what has brought the trio plenty of success since turning pro.

"They're just a lot of fun to follow. If you just sit there and watch them you are going to pick up something," says Neu.

"Naturally those guys talk about pitching most of the time so if there is something I feel that would be beneficial to me I ask them about it. Obviously they have the numbers to back it up so it isn't such a bad idea," Neu said.

Neu put up some lofty numbers himself during four years in the Reds minor league system, including three in Single-A ball. The 5-10, 180-pounder was 0-1 with a 4.50 ERA in nine relief appearances for Rockford (A) of the Midwest League in his first season in the minors. He followed that up with a career-high 24 saves and seven wins at Clinton (A) in 2000, recording 12.39 strikeouts per every nine innings pitched and limiting the opposition to a .191 batting average.

Again in 2001 Neu led the Reds system with 21 saves and posted 102 strikeouts in 64.2 innings pitched. But it apparently wasn't enough to impress the pitching-poor Reds who released Neu last year. Still, Neu does not hold any grudges toward the Reds organization.

"I'm very thankful of the way they treated me and everything they did for me," says Neu. "I did everything I could over there but they decided to go in another direction. It's in the past and I'm here now."

And he's made a strong impression.

A's catcher Ramon Hernandez said that despite lacking the physical make-up Neu has the mental capacity to be a star closer at the Major League level in the near. Oakland pitching coach Rick Peterson is also very fond of the former UM prospect.

"He has a pretty good idea of what it takes to get Major League hitters out," says Peterson. "But the most important thing I think is that Michael tends to stay even keel no matter what's going on. And obviously that's very important for a pitcher at any level."

Neu, an All-American at Miami, worked the final two innings of the 1999 College World Series championship game, retiring the side in the ninth against Florida State to clinch UM's third baseball national championship. He would go on to make the All-CWS squad.

"To this day that is still the highlight of my baseball career," Neu says.

With an experienced stable of pitchers in the pen, Oakland has elected not to rush Neu and overexpose him by using the 25-year-old in spots this season. And they just might know what they're doing. From Rollie Fingers in the 70's to Dennis Eckersly in the 90's to most recently Billy Koch Oakland has regularly had the good fortunes of a dominating closer.

Is another one on his way?

"Nobody is saying anything and I don't expect them to," Neu says. "But this is a great place to pitch and I hope everything falls into place for me."

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