Ace in the hole: Jimmy Nelson’s timely return to Brewers

For Brewers’ starter Jimmy Nelson, the odyssey back to Milwaukee is over at last. His return to the big league rotation comes at a time when the Brewers are shifting up into a higher gear atop the fiercely-contested National League Central, the team riding high after a successful road trip against the Minnesota Twins and Pittsburgh Pirates. Regardless of Wednesday night’s box score, Nelson’s return is a personal as well as professional triumph.

At first, it just looked like an awkward slide back into first. Pitchers don’t really run the bases, so to see Jimmy Nelson dive toward the bag was weird, but not alarming.

Then he didn’t get up.

After the game, Nelson told reporters he was removed for ‘precautionary reasons’. Nobody knew that would be the last time we’d see the Brewers’ ace on a big league bump for over 18 months.

Nelson, in September 2017, was nothing less than a force. Always big on talent, the 6’6″ 250 lb. righty to that point was the victim of hard luck, either in a lack of run support or giving up the long ball. He was turning the corner in front of our very eyes: 175+ IP, 199 strikeouts, a FIP almost one-half-run less than his ERA and less than 50 walks issued. This was the ace the Brewers hoped Ben Sheets would be; the rotation rock they hadn’t seen since CC Sabathia‘s stop in the 414 for some George Webb and a brief foray into postseason play.

For the first time in years, fans could look at the pitching match-up and feel confident in both a quality start and a chance for the Brewers to win.

If Nelson doesn’t slide, maybe the Brewers pick up that extra win to make the postseason in 2017. Then again, he wasn’t paid to hit in the clutch, the Brewers’ Achilles’ heel that year.

We thought he’d be back after the All-Star break in 2018. Technically, I guess whoever set that expectation–one could point to tweets from veteran Brewers beat writers Adam McCalvy and Tom Haudricourt, though there is no clear expectation setting taking place–wasn’t necessarily wrong. The Brewers chased down the Chicago Cubs, who choked away a six-game divisional lead down the stretch, and finished one game shy of a National League pennant. Nelson was there for it all, but as little more than a dugout cheerleader.

The Brewers also exercised an abundance of caution with their ace. “With any injury of this magnitude, you have to take a cautious approach,” general manager David Stearns told reporters in September 2018. “We understand how unpredictable these can be. So, we’ll continue to have contingency plans and listen to Jimmy, and make sure we’re doing this right for his body.” Nelson experienced at least separate setbacks along the way, a tweaked forearm and elbow discomfort, along with the protracted recovery of the repaired shoulder itself; the Brewers scaled him all the way back at every misstep.

With the team’s pitching staff proving to be more than capable in his absence, they had the wherewithal to allow Nelson to progress on a conservative pace. Brewers pitching in 2018 was better than many predicted, better than many who followed the team and/or rode the bandwagon believed, and their ace was on the shelf the whole time. Now, the first-place Milwaukee Brewers are poised to have their biggest arm back in their rotation, a dynamic counterpoint to soft-tossing savant Zach Davies and blossoming Brandon Woodruff.

After extended Spring Training in Arizona, Nelson finally was turned loose with the Triple-A San Antonio Missions, and this may well play part in why the Brewers preferred a conservative program. In 2018, the Brewers’ Triple-A affiliate was in Colorado Springs, not the kind of place that engendered goodwill for pitchers prone to big flies. Rushing Nelson back, only to have him give up a bunch of home runs is foolhardy for the organization and player alike. With the end of the Triple-A relationship in Colorado, the Brewers clearly were looking for a suitable affiliate in less-punitive climes for pitching. As it turns out, that suitable affiliate was Elmore Sports Group that operated the Sky Sox. Same team, new digs, better development opportunities. This is not to say the Brewers chose San Antonio solely because of Jimmy Nelson, but with two years remaining on a four-year player development pact inked in 2017, Nelson could serve as a valuable bellwether and template for how the club can utilize their farm system toward big league player rehabilitation.

San Antonio also just so happens to be near Nelson’s residence and family in Houston.

When Nelson’s wife, then pregnant with twin girls, developed complications during the pregnancy–well-documented by the family through social media–Nelson was in Phoenix at Brewers camp. Nelson was promoted from extended Spring Training to Triple-A for rehab starts in late April. The girls had different plans, born April 20. Nelson was able to make the short trip east to Houston and be there with his family. He would be assigned to San Antonio officially on May 5.

[Full disclosure: as a father of twin girls who also withstood complications during pregnancy and showed up early to the NICU, it is this part of the story that resonates deeply with me.]

And when Nelson finally got to the minor league mound, it took just three outings to show onlookers how effective he could be. On May 17, “Nelson worked 5 and 2/3 shutout innings against the Memphis Redbirds … He allowed only three hits, while walking one and striking out eight,” MiLB.com Missions writer Jerry Briggs told Bronx to Bushville. “Just watching him, you could sense that he was feeling good. He was hitting corners and throwing all his pitches for strikes.

“Even though he pitched for the Missions twice before that night and twice afterward, I really think that might have been the night that he found what he was looking for in his quest to get back to the big leagues. Afterward, he talked confidently about wanting to be a better pitcher than he was before the shoulder injury.”

Nelson, like the Brewers, seemed to be playing the long game with reporters after that appearance: “I think that’s going to pay off in the future,” Nelson told reporters, including Briggs, in San Antonio that night. “I might look down the road in five, six, 10 years, or whatever, and say that this is a blessing in disguise. That it forced me to really revamp some things mechanically, that might extend my career longer than it might have been previously, if I didn’t get injured.”

There may be no cheering in the press box, but Nelson’s approach and gracious demeanor won over the veteran beat writer. “Seems like a cool dude, to me,” Briggs added. “I want to wish him all the best in his comeback.”

Time spent in recovery and rehab can be torture on anyone’s psyche, let alone professional athletes, who are paid according to what they can do with their bodies at the highest levels of competition. Now, not only does Nelson have exceptional tread on the tires for a veteran pitcher, he was able to take these 21 months and develop his mindset, approach, strategy and mechanics. Nelson isn’t just looking to get back to a Major League rotation, he’s looking to be better.

And the thought of him being better than in his breakout 2017–when he displayed elite-level fastball velocity, curve spin, strikeout percentage and opposing hitter exit velo, contact and power–puts him potentially in conversations with the very best pitchers in the game, and gives the Milwaukee Brewers another weapon as they hit midseason.

Jimmy Nelson isn’t just returning Wednesday as he turns 30 years old, facing the Miami Marlins. He’s coming back with something to prove. And regardless of the box score, Nelson will emerge the victor.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville. Follow him on Twitter. Follow us on Twitter, for that matter.

Bronx to Bushville is grateful to Jerry Briggs for his contribution to the story.

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