Lakeland, Fla. — If there is a compassionate bone in your body, you felt bad for Angel Nesbitt last season.
To see the joy on his face when he telephoned his mother in Venezuela to tell her he had made the Tigers last spring was heart-warming. He walked out of the clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium, gave a big smile and thumbs-up to reporters and then went off by himself to tell his mother.
There were tears in his eyes when he came back.
But the story did not end well. By early June, the smiles were long gone and Nesbitt was pitching at Triple A Toledo. And things only got worse from there.
“When they sent me down I was feeling sad,” said Nesbitt, still only 25. “Because I had made team and I knew I could be up there all year. When I go down to Triple-A it was like, ‘That’s not my real team. That’s not my level.’
“I respect that level. It’s hard. That league is hard, too. But when you think you are better than that league, that’s what happens.”
The International League beat him up. Nesbitt was 1-5 with a 6.25 ERA and a 1.86 WHIP. In 40⅓ innings he walked 21.
“I am just looking for another chance,” he said. “I know I’ll be better. I know I will do better.”
General manager Al Avila made it very clear the club had not given up on Nesbitt.
“He still has great stuff and he’s still young,” Avila said during the winter meetings in December. “He’s still a viable option and a guy that, if he doesn’t make our bullpen out of spring training, he’ll be in Toledo, getting better.
Nesbitt took the first step toward his personal recovery this winter, throwing 6⅓ innings of scoreless ball in Venezuela.
“I learned a lot of things from last year, but the best thing is, you have to be ready in your mind,” Nesbitt said. “You have to believe what you are doing is what you want to do. I was thinking too much last year.”
Nesbitt, a powerfully-built 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, has a mid-90 mph fastball, as well as a solid selection of secondary pitches (cutter, changeup and slider). And for the first month and a half last season, it all looked big league ready.
In his first 17⅓ innings with the Tigers, opponents hit .222 and he’d allowed six runs. He was gradually gaining the trust of manager Brad Ausmus. But suddenly, everything fell apart. Over his last six outings, 4⅓ innings, he allowed seven runs, eight hits, five walks and he hit two batters. Opponents hit well over .400 against him.
He knows exactly what happened. He lost faith in his stuff. He tried to be too fine with his pitches, wound up falling behind batters and either walking them or feeding them fastballs in good hitter’s counts.
“That’s what happens when you try to be perfect,” he said. “You don’t have to be perfect. I know that now.”
He also lost the feel for his change-up, nearly abandoning it by early May. Opponents hit over .500 against his changeup and slider in his 24 big league appearances last season.
“Everything feels good right now,” he said. “I know I can pitch. I know I can be better. I am just looking for a second opportunity.”
It will be hard-earned. Nesbitt is one of a host of strong-armed relievers looking to fill one of the final two spots in the bullpen.