Clint Nageotte: Whatever it Takes

TACOMA, Wash. – Two seasons ago, the top pitching prospect in the Seattle Mariners organization was a right-hander from Parma, Ohio. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder led his league in strikeouts for three consecutive seasons and was getting close to the show as the 2004 season began.

If the stars all lined up, the hard-throwing former All-State Basketball player was going to jump into the majors at the age of 23 and use his plus breaking ball as a tool for success at the highest level the game has to offer.

But for Clint Nageotte, the stars didn't line up – at least not properly. After a sub par first half of the year in Triple-A Tacoma, Nageotte got his chance at the big leagues anyways, as the club believed he was still the most qualified to produce in the show. Unfortunately, Nageotte wasn't 100 percent physically and his stuff wasn't performing like he was used to.

"I was trying too hard," said Nageotte. "My stuff wasn't there but all I could do is put more effort into it."

The effort was much appreciated and did not go unnoticed by the organization, but Nageotte was shut down in August due to a sore lower back – and after a 1-6 record and a 7.36 ERA in 12 games with the Mariners. In other words, a far cry from the arm that won Ohio's Baseball Player of the Year in 1999 and compiled a 3.60 ERA and 680 strikeouts in just over 600 innings prior to being called up.

Entering Spring Training this past February, Nageotte felt fine and was vying for a spot on the 25-man roster.

"I came in feeling good but right at the end there I started feeling it in the forearm," Nageotte said. "It wasn't so much as a sharp pain but more of a nagging one. It just wouldn't go away."

So Nageotte missed the first two and half months of the season on rehab on Peoria, working his way back to the game. On June 22, Nageotte returned to the mound for the M's Arizona Rookie club in Peoria and after one stint, flew to Tacoma to begin his journey back to Seattle.

"I was glad to get out of Arizona," said Nageotte. "It was getting pretty hot."

Nageotte came into his assignment with the Rainiers trying to make up for lost time – and looking forward to each day he was on the roster and not stewing in the desert heat.

"Once the (summer league) season started, then I knew how far back I was," said Nageotte. "I had already missed a good two and a half months of a season. Pushing a little harder? Yeah, you could say that."

Nageotte enters his 2005 season in a different role – as a releiver. Nageotte's fastball-slider combo is ripe for relief work and two and three-inning outings, as opposed to trying to go through a lineup three times with just two pitches.

As much as the 24-year-old prefers to start, his approach to his seventh professional season is somewhat different from year's past.

"Spending that time on the disabled list has opened my eyes up a little bit," said Nageotte. "Basically to where I just want to pitch. I just want to pitch in whatever role it's going to be. Whether it be long relief or towards the end of the ballgame, I was just going to prepare myself for something I have never done.

"It's a whole new routine, but I don't mind it. I like it. You're in the game a little bit more when you are starting and you obviously know when you are going to be pitching, but in the bullpen it's a different story."

Nageotte seems to be adjusting well to his new routine, sporting a 0.73 ERA in seven games for Tacoma through July 21. The kid with the best slider in the minors is taking the gig by storm, citing the physical differences more than the mental approach to relieving versus starting games.

"I think it's just about getting your arm ready," said Nageotte. "Being ready – some guys take longer to get loose, I'm one of those guys that takes longer to get loose. Down in the bullpen you might have a couple of batters to get warmed up. And it's here and now. You may have had a few shaky innings but when you come in at the end of the ballgame, you better be ready."

The nuances of relieving versus starting don't scare Nageotte, or discourage his future in the organization. Even the talk that he has had the forearm issues because he uses his slider too often and hasn't developed the change-up like the club had hoped, doesn't faze his confidence one bit, or change his strategy on the mound.

"They say you get your breaking ball from your elbow and your velocity from your shoulder," said Nageotte. "So I guess if you look at it like that – last year my stuff showed that it wasn't right – then there's something to that.

"But the slider is my out pitch and my best pitch, so I'm going to throw it. That's just the way it is. That is what has got me here and I'm not going to turn away from what got me to this point. I'm going to live and die by it."

Nageotte spent the entire 2003 season in the starting rotation with the Double-A San Antonio Missions. He led the league in strikeouts and was instrumental in the Missions' repeat as Texas League Champions.

With a fastball in the low-90s and a biting slider that buckles the knees of anyone daring to step into the batter's box, Nageotte, and his average command, seemed destined to stick with the M's and have a solid career as a major league pitcher.

But his velocity disappeared down into the high-80s and his command went from average to very erratic. His confidence, once soaring, was hovering near the soil he pitched from. But what happened?

"It's something I can't explain," said Nageotte. "I don't know what happened velocity wise. Maybe I was injured, but I wasn't hurting, so I don't know. I don't think I was. But as the season went along it was pretty obvious that I wasn't the same pitcher that I was most of my career."

The new season has brought a new energy for Nageotte. Bad memories are gone as he creates a positive manifestation of life as a pitcher.

"Last year I battled with below-average stuff," said Nageotte. "My stuff is back and when I feel 100 percent confident in my stuff, I feel like I can get everybody out.

"When my fastball is just average, then my slider is just another pitch. I have to have another pitch to pitch (the slider ) off of, rather than being a one pitch guy."

Velocity isn't a problem for Nageotte these days, sitting 90-92 with his fastball and using a sinker to induce ground ball outs.

Creating contact is an integral part of Nageotte's game plan this season. Avoiding deep counts and long innings, and getting the easy out has replaced the strikeout. Well, sorta.

"I'm throwing my sinker a lot more this year," said Nageotte. "Getting ground balls and staying away from the tough innings. It's important for me.

"But if I can get the strikeout, I'm going to go for it. But I can't try to strike everybody out. Getting outs – that's the idea."

Two years ago, Nageotte was looking for the punch out – it was the idea in every situation and he was the top young arm in the M's system because he could get hitters to swing and miss.

Today, the 24-year-old is looking to get outs any way he can. Now that's progress.

After the disappointing 2004 campaign, many have written off the right-hander as a long-term option in the future of the Mariners pitching staff.

One piece of advice to those who are driving that bandwagon: Don't sleep on Clint Nageotte.

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