Pirates' Meek hit 'brick wall,' but broke through

Reliever's baseball-best ERA comes after career nearly derailed


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By the time Evan Meek was 9, the local Little League officials of Bothell, Wash., had requested that he not be used as a starting pitcher.

"They asked us to please just save him for the later innings," his father, David Meek, recalled. "Give the hitters a chance."

By the time Meek was 13, he had registered 80-mph on the radar gun.

"Best arm I'd ever seen," a former San Diego scout, Mal Fichman, recalled. "Kid could throw the ball through a brick wall."

Looks like that now, too: Meek is the best of the Pirates' bullpen and, by some measures, the best reliever in all of Major League Baseball with a 0.68 ERA and .170 opponents' batting average.

But to understand how he achieved that, it is necessary to rewind to the real brick wall in his life.


Today

Game: Pirates vs. Texas Rangers, 8:05 p.m., Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).

Pitching: RHP Ross Ohlendorf (0-5, 5.22) vs. RHP Tommy Hunter (2-0, 2.08).

Season series: First meeting since 2007, first in Arlington since 2004. Texas leads all-time, 7-2.

Key matchup: Everyone in the majors vs. the Rangers. They have won eight in a row, 11 of 12, and their 36-19 record since April 22 is best in baseball.

Of note: Texas left fielder Josh Hamilton is on a superhuman 18-for-31 tear over the past week, and his 16-game hitting streak is the longest current one in baseball.

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Statistics

Standings

Minor-league report


It was June 22, 2005, and Meek had just been released by Minnesota after an epic bout of wildness with the Twins' rookie-level team. Almost twice as many walks as innings. Hitters cringing to step into the box. One start for Class A Beloit in which his first pitch "went 20 feet over the catcher's head," Meek said. Another with Kane County in which his fastball had an absurd range of 81-98 mph.

"I was all alone out there, and I felt like no one could help me," Meek said. "Going into every pitch, I was scared to fail, scared to embarrass myself. I couldn't feel the baseball in my hand."

Feel the baseball?

"It's hard to explain. It's like I wasn't even touching it."

Meek went back to his apartment in Virginia, still without answers and now without a team. Day after day passed with no call. And, by his thinking, that might have been OK.

"I wanted nothing to do with the game," he said. "You grow up as a young player all excited about baseball because people are always saying good things about you. But this ... no one else knows. I didn't want to watch baseball, I didn't want to check on how my old teammates were doing, nothing."

That included contact with an actual baseball.

"Wouldn't touch one at all."

Another week passed before Meek concocted a gut-wrenching compromise: He needed to keep his arm in shape, in the odd event anyone might call. But, since he still sensed he was missing that "feel," he wrapped one baseball thickly in duct tape and took to throwing it against -- rather than through -- a brick wall outside the apartment.

"Painted a white square," he said. "Started out 10 minutes a day, worked my way up."

He then worked up the zeal to fly back to Washington state to be with his family, though not for condolences: Evan asked David Meek for help, in the way that only a father-son game of catch could offer.

The two went to a nearby football field, and the duct tape came off.

"Best feeling of my life," Evan said. "We talked about everything except what we were doing, anything other than baseball, but it just felt so good, just tossing the ball back and forth with my dad."

"Evan came to me depressed," David said. "But I also knew that he had a dream since he was a little boy and, right then, I saw that he still wanted that dream."

Soon after, Fichman, the scout for the Padres who had seen Meek pitch through childhood -- now an independent consultant --gave him a call from Boise, Idaho.

"I told him I'd be passing through Seattle the next day but only for a few hours, that he'd have to round up some friends -- right-handed batter, left-handed batter, catcher -- and throw for me," Fichman said.

Meek did all that, then drove to Seattle's airport to escort Fichman to Bellevue Community College, where had hastily arranged to use the field.

With the first pitch ...

"Looked to me like Evan just kind of tossed it," Fichman said. "I turned to his buddy holding the gun and said, 'He's just getting loose, I guess. What was it?' He tells me 94. That tells you how easily this kid throws that hard."

The session overall did not go well -- Meek plunked one of those buddies in the ribs -- but Fichman recommended the signing based on the arm, and Bill Bryk, San Diego's special assistant to general manager Kevin Towers, executed it.

Next, as Fichman put it, "It was time to deconstruct."

Meek had no history of emotional issues. Hailing from a big family with two brothers and two sisters, by his early teens, he had turned his side passion for the guitar into playing in a garage band, as many Seattle youngsters did in the post-Nirvana grunge days. His hair had been grown down to his back.

"We stunk, but we rocked," Meek said.

"Evan was the most fun-loving kid around, always clean but always having a blast," David Meek said.

More relevant, he had no control issues at the amateur level, nor in his first season in the Minnesota system, 2003, in which he was 7-1 as a starter with a 2.47 ERA.

The following spring, though, instructors with the Twins -- Meek declined to identify anyone -- altered his pitching mechanics. David Meek was furious and warned Evan against heeding. But Meek, the newcomer, listened. And, whether it was the instruction or not, he fell apart.

"Even when I tried to go back to how I was, no one could help me," Meek said. "And I'm not blaming anyone for that. I couldn't get it back, either."

San Diego's people started over, essentially, and he soon gained enough value that he was one of two prospects traded to Tampa Bay in 2006 for slugger Russell Branyan. The Rays converted Meek to relief and liked what they saw, but their famously deep system forced Meek to get exposed in the Rule 5 draft in December of 2007.

The Pirates, in Neal Huntington's first major-league acquisition as general manager, took him with the No. 2 pick.

"Oh, I am so excited!" Meek shouted during a phone interview right afterward.

Not for long.

Meek made the roster out of spring training, entirely because of his Rule 5 status, but the "dream" his father described immediately became a nightmare, as he averaged a walk an inning and, because the Pirates were so pitching-poor, they had nowhere to hide him.

"I had no idea what I was about to face," Meek said. "I wanted to do so well. When I was a kid, I didn't just dream of pitching in the majors. I dreamed of being Nolan Ryan pitching a no-hitter. But this was all just ... cloudy."

"Evan always wanted to please, to make everybody happy," David Meek said.

Huntington kept faith in Meek and arranged for a trade with Tampa Bay to be able to send him to the minors, as a Rule 5 player otherwise must stay in the majors all year.

"We saw a young man with the potential for two plus pitches and the determination to improve," Huntington said. "Despite his struggles, he still wanted to compete and believed he could compete at the highest level."

First step in this recovery process was Class AA Altoona, where Brad Holman, the pitching coach at the time, changed nothing.

"Brad just told me I needed to be out of the spotlight, and he was right," Meek said. "I'd already dominated Double-A guys, so I knew that. I went up to Triple-A and had a little rough stretch, but I kept going back to my first strikeout in Pittsburgh, Alfonso Soriano. If I could get him, I could get these guys."

And so it is that Meek, 27, has arrived.

In the clubhouse, his voice is one of the loudest, his laugh the most common. The guitar is there, too, only now he is accomplished on the acoustical model.

As for the mound ...

His fastball regularly sits at 95 mph, his slider has an unfair bite even against left-handers, and his curve and change give him twice the repertoire of the standard reliever. He has pounded the zone with all four, having 36 strikeouts against nine walks. And hitters very seldom have achieved even decent contact, with only five of his 24 allowed over 40 innings going for extra bases.

Most striking, perhaps, is how manager John Russell has used him: Rather than in the closer role that many see in Meek's near future -- veteran Octavio Dotel has that now -- Meek has been the true fireman, called mostly when there is trouble.

Witness the sixth inning Saturday, when Jeff Karstens and two relievers had made a mess and allowed Cleveland to score three times and pull within 5-4. Meek inherited two of those runners and walked his first to load the bases.

It was his staff-high 34th appearance.

"We're watching at home on the computer, and we saw Evan's fastball at 91 mph," David Meek said. "Uh-oh."

The Indians sent up their biggest bat, Travis Hafner, to pinch-hit, and Meek ramped up to 93 for a called strike.

"Not enough," David muttered from afar.

Meek ramped up to 97 mph, got a comebacker to end the inning, went back out for a 1-2-3 seventh, and the Pirates held on to win.

Speculation soon will grow regarding the team's All-Star representative, and that likely will focus on center fielder Andrew McCutchen. But Meek also will get consideration, just as he might soon become the team's closer if Dotel gets traded, just as he might ...

"Honestly, I'm not thinking ahead anymore," Meek said on this free Monday for the Pirates. "I'm thinking about the bus to the airport to go to Dallas. When I get to the ballpark, I'll think about the Rangers. A lot went into getting me where I am now, and I'm going to enjoy the now."


Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more online at PBC Blog . First Published June 22, 2010 3:00 AM


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