GENEVA, Ill. – He remembers what it felt like to be in control. It was a long time ago. But that kind of euphoria never dies.
"It's like trying to describe an ice cream sundae," Jason Neighborgall says, "to someone who has never tasted one before."
Neighborgall leans against the railing along the third-base line at Elfstrom Stadium, where his team, South Bend, the Arizona Diamondbacks' low-A affiliate, is about to play host Kane County. He is tall, 6-foot-5, and lean, with sandy blonde curls hanging like weeping willows over his forehead. Neighborgall shakes his right arm, and you half-expect nuggets of gold to fall from his shirt or a thunderclap to roar. Because that arm … well, that arm might be the greatest in all of baseball, if only he had any idea what to do with it.
Jason Neighborgall makes Nuke LaLoosh look like a control pitcher. With a pitcher's objective being fairly simple – get guys out – one who doesn't put the ball over the plate should have no business trying to professionally.
Only when scouts see the radar gun flash 100 mph on Neighborgall's fastball, or when they see his nose-to-knees curveball break, they blink their eyes just to make sure they actually saw what they think they saw. Scouts have a scale to rate players' attributes. The low end is 20, the high end 80. Joel Zumaya's fastball is an 80. Johan Santana's changeup is an 80. Francisco Liriano's slider is an 80.
Neighborgall's fastball and curveball are 80s.
"When I got him the first year," says Mel Stottlemyre Jr., Neighborgall's pitching coach for two seasons, "I said, 'That stuff is as good as I've ever seen on the side in rookie ball.' It's ungodly stuff."
Since Neighborgall entered high school in Durham, N.C., it has been. He threw back-to-back no-hitters as a sophomore and another as a senior. With his bonus demands too high, he went to Georgia Tech instead of signing with the Boston Red Sox. He pitched there for three years, walking 113 and striking out 115 in 101 innings, before the Diamondbacks drafted him in the third round in 2005 and signed him for $500,000.
Arizona thought it could fix Neighborgall. Everyone does. When you're handed a raw 10-carat diamond, you don't shoehorn it into a setting. You clean it, polish it and do everything you can to make it shine, even if its cut, color and clarity are disappointing.
"The difficult question to a guy in my position," Diamondbacks farm director A.J. Hinch says, "is if you would rather have the overachieving kid without major league stuff or shoot the moon a bit with a kid who has two 80 pitches?"
Hinch didn't have to answer.
Neighborgall doesn't understand what happened. Now 23, he never had great command over his pitches. He never watched them soar in all different directions, either.
"I'd ask why," Neighborgall says, "but I don't know if I could ever answer it."
Stottlemyre thinks it's mechanics. Countless tall pitchers have struggled keeping their body parts in sync. Adjusting one thing messes with another. After too much tinkering, the pitcher doesn't know what's right anymore.
The beginning of Neighborgall's delivery is easy enough: He lifts his left leg almost straight up, loading his weight, readying his arm.
From there, it falls apart. His torso leans back at an awkward angle. ("Big front side," Stottlemyre says.) He tilts his head. ("Too far offline.") His stride toward the plate is way out in front of the rest of his body. ("Late arm.") The result is Neighborgall missing high and arm side – or directly at the chin of right-handed batters.
When that happens, Neighborgall begins to compensate, speeding up his arm – usually too fast – and bouncing pitches away against right-handers. They pile up, bad pitch after bad pitch, hundreds of them in his head, and that's where South Bend manager Mark Haley sees the real troubles.
Neighborgall isn't Steve Blass or Rick Ankiel. He didn't lose it instantaneously.
It's been missing for years.
"Anybody who's stood over a golf ball, hit a good one, then followed with 15 bad ones understands," Haley says. "The frustration is that you know what makes a good swing. Well, then why are you missing them all the time?
"He just panics. It's something he's done well, and now, all of a sudden, he's lost that feel. Imagine losing the ability to do what you do so well."
The Diamondbacks won't let Neighborgall throw his curveball anymore. Not until he learns to control his fastball.
"My stuff is good," Neighborgall says. "But you know what? If you're not throwing strikes, it doesn't matter how hard you throw. You're not going to get anyone out. It's not about my stuff anymore. It's about harnessing it.
"It takes time. Believing in yourself. If you do that, you can get over a lot of things. Hopefully, this is one of those cases. Trust yourself before anything can take place on the mound."
That might be the most vexing part of it to the Diamondbacks: Neighborgall is so self-aware, and the problem remains. Taking the curveball away hasn't worked. What, do they steal back his changeup, make him a one-pitch pitcher and expose him to hitters sitting on a fastball that, no matter its velocity, will get smacked around if it's anywhere near the plate?
Back in Phoenix, team executives eagerly await Neighborgall's appearances, checking box scores on the Internet. When they see the unsightly lines – the walks and wild pitches – they wonder if this is just what Jason Neighborgall is, if he is broken beyond repair.
And then they remember that arm.
"We're looking for signs, looking for something," says Stottlemyre, now Arizona's roving pitching coach. "I feel bad. It's been tough. He's a great kid. Great work habits. And he can speak and talk the language of pitching. He gets it. He knows what he needs to do. Understands counts, pitching.
"Physically, he just can't put it together."
Nothing is working, and it's evident even during batting practice. Before he heads to the outfield to shag fly balls, Neighborgall is playing catch with Brett Anderson, a 19-year-old bonus baby.
Anderson is a funhouse reflection of Neighborgall. Doughy, left-handed and with impeccable control, Anderson has struck out 35 and walked five in 29 1/3 innings. And while he tosses the ball into Neighborgall's glove, Anderson flails right and left to catch Neighborgall's returns. Three times, Anderson leaves his feet to keep the ball from sailing over the fence onto a grassy slope.
"It's frustrating," Neighborgall says. "It's why baseball is so difficult. I'm struggling, and it's tough when you're standing up there and can't trust anything. The organization preaches that I have to trust my stuff, so I can't be thinking about mechanical issues on the mound. Hopefully, I can get back on track."
Recently, it has worsened. Neighborgall started hitting batters, and, as Haley says, "He knows how hard he throws. He knows how much it hurts."
The walks are difficult enough. In his first season out of Georgia Tech, with rookie-ball Missoula, he issued 45 in 22 2/3 innings. Last year, still in rookie ball, it was 46 in 13 innings.
Arizona promoted him anyway. Change of scenery. Chance to start over. Less than a month into the season, it's just more of the same, and it's starting to look dangerous for anyone who steps into the batter's box against Neighborgall.
"You almost want to hug him," Haley says, "and say, 'Hey, you all right?'"
The Diamondbacks called Neighborgall on Wednesday, three days after his worst outing of the season, and asked him to return to extended spring training in Tucson, Ariz.
In his five appearances with South Bend, Neighborgall pitched one inning, gave up three hits and 12 earned runs, walked 12, struck out two, threw nine wild pitches, hit three batters and posted a 108.00 earned-run average.
"I hate to keep talking about a guy who has underachieved, underachieved," Stottlemyre says. "Sometimes, we tend to put too much pressure on guys. You know what? He can't help to go out there and feel pressure, because he's been slated as this guy with unbelievable stuff."
Because of that stuff – and in spite of everything else – the Diamondbacks still believe in Neighborgall. They're going to experiment with his arm angle, dropping him down from his current over-the-top delivery. Perhaps they'll try pitching him out of the stretch exclusively to take away the extraneous movement that plagues him. Maybe some tiny adjustment will make Neighborgall click.
Sometimes, saving a pitcher from himself is more blindfolded darts than science.
"We've invested in him," Hinch says. "He's invested the time and energy as well. At the end of the day, if it doesn't work out, you want to look in the mirror and say you did everything you could to get the best out of him."
Neighborgall isn't giving up, no way. At least not until he can feel it at least one more time.
He talks about being in control like it's a higher state of being, about how it's like he blacks out, becomes someone else almost. He says sometimes he doesn't remember it the next day. And that's too bad, because eventually things go bad again, and he starts thinking, and he starts overanalyzing, and he turns into one of baseball's great enigmas, and its about arm slot and repeating his delivery and throwing strikes and not hitting guys and his two 80 pitches and believing in himself.
"And then, all of a sudden, it's out of control," Neighborgall said. "And I don't know what to do."