He idled at a railroad crossing, behind 15 other cars, waiting for the gate to rise. When the caboose finally rolled by, Luke Gregerson(notes) lifted his foot off the brake. Before he could accelerate, a car traveling about 40 mph barreled into him from behind. The seatbelt caught his body. It couldn't stop his head.
Gregerson's neck snapped forward, and because he was 16 years old and considered himself indestructible, he ignored the pain and told the emergency personnel he was fine. The ambulance technicians strapped him to a backboard anyway and transported him to a local hospital, where doctors put him through an MRI and found a fractured C6 vertebrae.
And so began the chain of events that landed Gregerson with the San Diego Padres, a confluence of bad luck and good fortune, of big risks and even bigger rewards, of a single unhittable pitch from someone who would rather not be a pitcher. Had Gregerson not broken his neck, he wouldn't be here, holding firmly to the mantel of baseball's best setup man.
It's a fluid title. Some eighth-inning specialists graduate to closer. Others flame out – relief pitching is such a fly-by-night endeavor. In his second season, Gregerson looks more like a closer-in-waiting. His numbers scream mistype: 34 1/3 innings, 14 hits, two walks, 41 strikeouts and a 1.57 earned-run average. Rest assured, they are real, and he turns major league hitters into misanthropes: They hate the sight of the 26-year-old Gregerson, they hate the leg kick in his delivery, they hate the deception of his windup and, more than anything, they hate his slider.
The pitch is no marvel of modern engineering, no Strasburgian assault on radar guns and sensibilities. It's just a really good breaking ball that hitters have tried to figure out for a season and a half with no luck. Gregerson throws his slider more than 60 percent of the time, an almost unfathomable rate considering the pitch's reputation for wrecking arms. That doesn't bother him.
"It works, and that's what matters," he said. "A lot of guys say they can't pick up the spin on it. I don't know why. It's an aspect of baseball and physics I just don't understand. Other guys don't, either, so I guess I can keep throwing it."
Which he has since the neck brace came off and he started playing baseball again. Had Gregerson not missed all of his junior year of high school in suburban Chicago letting his injury heal, he would have hit the showcase circuit and found a far wider audience to appreciate his talents at his regular position: third base. Options limited, Gregerson listened to his coach, Jim Tseres, and began to pitch – and learn the slider.
Still, it wasn't enough to attract college coaches. It took a call from Tseres to Mike Dooley, the coach of St. Xavier University in southwest Chicago, for Gregerson even to get a sniff from a college team. St. Xavier was an NAIA school. That was fine by Gregerson. He played right field, grew to 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds and matured into an all-conference player.
Before Gregerson's junior season, Dooley sat him down. He wanted Gregerson to pitch. Everyone noticed his arm strength. Hitters rarely mashed their way out of an NAIA school. A live arm was his ticket.
"Guys don't want to hear that," Dooley said. "They want to hear they're good enough to play in the field. He was smart enough to listen."
During the next two years as the St. Xavier closer, Gregerson thrived. Dooley called all the pitches, readying Gregerson for the future by calling slider after slider. His 0.68 ERA as a senior drew the attention of the St. Louis Cardinals, who drafted him in the 28th round despite his numbers having been earned against inferior competition. He was what all 28th-round picks are: a couple-thousand-dollar lottery ticket. That was enough for Gregerson to defer admission to the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
In rookie ball, Gregerson learned the grip for the sinker he uses today as a complement to the slider. As a full-time pitcher for the first time, Gregerson experimented until he found the optimal delivery for his slider: index finger and middle finger together, laid across the horseshoe pattern of the seams, throwing it like a fastball until the last second when he allows the ball to roll off the inside of his fingers – a cutter motion with slider movement because of his arm action.
"It just became a pitch I could throw in, out, up, down, harder, slower," Gregerson said. "It became something I could control better than my fastball. If I'm going into battle, I'm throwing it. I trust it more than I trust anything else.
"Coaches say to use your fastball to set up other pitches. I do the reverse. I set up my fastball with my slider."
The unorthodoxy scared most. Van Smith loved it. As a scout for the Padres, Smith had covered Gregerson in 2008. When the team was primed to trade shortstop Khalil Greene(notes) to St. Louis, general manager Kevin Towers asked Smith to recommend a major league-ready player. He named Gregerson, who hadn't pitched an inning above Double-A, and the next spring he was the player to be named later in the Greene deal.
Gregerson's slider immediately impressed. As the 2009 season went on, he got stronger, throwing scoreless appearances in 23 of his final 25 games. Among Gregerson, Mike Adams(notes) and Heath Bell(notes), the Padres featured the game's best late-inning combination. It's only improved this year, with Gregerson holding hitters to a .121 batting average, .142 on-base percentage and .190 slugging percentage.
Nearly two-thirds of the time, hitters know what's coming. And it matters not.
"Is the league eventually maybe going to sit on slider? Yes," Padres manager Bud Black said. "But it's almost to the point where they can sit on it and still can't hit it if it's in a good spot, which, most of the time, it is. …
"It's just that natural gift that certain pitchers have that you really can't explain, that you really can't notice until you get into the box. … I wouldn't say it's total funk, but it's a little funk. It's a little Funky Nassau."
The truest sign of a slider's distinctiveness: its ability to be compared to an obscure 29-year-old song. Gregerson's slider, in a study of the available data, shows no exceptional movement and no crazy spin – nothing that separates it from the hundreds of other sliders in the world. Gregerson throws his for strikes, throws it a ton and throws it without apology.
If the slider does undo Gregerson's career, he'll be just another victim. If he survives and thrives, he will be the modern-day Larry Andersen, a reliever whose fondness of sliders carved out an effective 17-year career.
"I'm going to keep throwing it until they start hitting it," Gregerson said, and right now, they're not coming close. So he'll keep pitching the seventh and eighth innings, keep hoping Black gives him an at-bat so he can swing the bat like he yearns to, keep thanking the scant few along the way who saw in him what others missed.
And he'll keep remembering that day by the railroad tracks when all of this was set in motion – the crash that caused the broken neck that caused the missed opportunities that caused the slider that causes so much havoc.