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Published: Thursday, 6/19/2008

Tryout works out well for Mud Hens' Neal

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Blaine Neal pitches Tuesday against Syracuse when he picked up his 20th save. The 13-year veteran is hoping to get back to the major leagues for the first time since 2005. Blaine Neal pitches Tuesday against Syracuse when he picked up his 20th save. The 13-year veteran is hoping to get back to the major leagues for the first time since 2005.
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Blaine Neal may soon pitch his way back to the big leagues.

As the Mud Hens closer, Neal leads the International League with 20 saves, and Toledo manager Larry Parrish said Neal's already come close to a promotion to Detroit a couple times this season.

Even if Neal, 30, returns to major league baseball for the first time since 2005, he said his 13-year pro career has already come full circle. It happened on March 4, when Neal arrived at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla., for an open tryout.

To be clear, he wasn't trying to catch on with the Tigers' organization through a private meeting with the front office or an invitation-only showcase for minor league free agents, but in a crowded tryout where Neal, his plumber, his barber, and

anyone over the age of 18 were welcome.

"I definitely looked around and was like, 'Wow,'•" Neal said hours before he saved his 20th game this season on Tuesday. "There were some characters there, but you do what you've got to do. I looked at it as a chance to maybe open some eyes."

Neal saved 11 games last season for Syracuse, but had surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow in September and didn't have any suitors for this year.

Living with his wife and son in Jupiter, Fla., Neal caught wind that the Tigers were having an open tryout in Lakeland. He knew many Tigers operatives who were with the Florida Marlins while he was in that organization from 1996 through 2003, and figured if he pitched well that day someone might be willing to take a chance on him.

If Neal couldn't crack the Tigers' organization, he was prepared to play for the independent league Camden Riversharks, who weren't far from his

hometown of Marlton, N.J.

But Neal, who pitched in parts of five major league seasons for the Marlins, San Diego Padres, Boston Red Sox, and Colorado Rockies, never had to stoop that low.

"He showed decent stuff and his velocity was still there," said Dan Lunetta, director of minor league operations for the Tigers, in an e-mail. "But give him credit, not too many players with a couple of years of major league service time will show up for these tryouts.

"It can be a humbling experience, but he was willing to give it a shot and we saw enough in him that led us to believe he could help us ... and suffice it to say, he has."

It was Lunetta who called Neal after that tryout and invited him to minor league spring training. Neal wasn't guaranteed a spot, but the Mud Hens looked like they could use bullpen help, and he pitched his way onto Toledo's roster.

Parrish wasn't sure who his closer would be when camp broke, but he summoned Neal for the ninth inning on opening day against Durham. Neal allowed two hits but preserved the Hens' 3-2 advantage, and saved 16 more without fail before blowing one June 11.

In addition to those 20 saves, Neal has posted a 1.46 ERA with 28 strikeouts and six walks in 242/3 innings, and has only blown that one save.

"He's a guy you never have any qualms about bringing into a game," Parrish said. "If he's going to get beat, the other team has to beat him. He's not going to beat himself."

Parrish also said Neal has meshed well with teammates, which wasn't a guarantee

considering the number of younger, inexperienced players Toledo had when the season started.

Ian Ostlund, a fellow Hens reliever who said he didn't know Neal before this year, said Neal makes the team better on and off the field.

"He keeps everything in perspective and reminds you you're playing a game," Ostlund said. "This isn't life or death."

Neal left the Hens for about a week to be with his wife Keri for the birth of their second son Casey on June 4. He flew home to Jupiter Tuesday night to spend Toledo's off day yesterday with Keri, Casey, and Charlie - the couple's 2-year old - and will rejoin the Hens for tonight's road game against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

That perspective Ostlund was talking about - Neal said he gets it from his family.

He said continuing his career means putting decisions on hold like when and where to buy land or whether or not Keri should find a job.

And yes, Neal can teach his teammates to laugh off tough nights at the yard, but he also knows baseball is how he

supports his family.

Which is why when he saw the Tigers were hosting an open tryout - where there would be more than 100 Average Joes with no shot of playing pro ball - he wasn't laughing.

"I've had to pitch with more of a purpose the last couple of years," Neal said. "Whether I was a first-round draft pick or a guy going to an open tryout, it's not going to change what I need to do."

Contact Joe Vardon at:

jvardon@theblade.com

or 419-410 5055.



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