By JAMAL THALJI
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2001
LAND O'LAKES -- At the plate with bat in hand and crouched in a stance is already too late to try and figure out Land O'Lakes starter Rich Neste.
Who knows what pitch will cross the plate next? Only Neste.
If it's a fastball count, will a fastball cross the plate? No. It'll be a curveball, and an unhittable one at that. In fact, forget the count completely. Balls and strikes don't matter to Neste.
Watch out for that changeup because it's tricky. So is his slider. And his screwball? Not many prep players can hit that pitch.
If fact, this season not many can claim to have hit any of Neste's medley of off-speed pitches. The Gators' senior leads the county with a 7-0 record on the mound and a miniscule 0.72 earned-run average. Wednesday evening he clinched his seventh victory by pitching a complete-game one-hitter and striking out 11 in a 1-0 Sunshine Athletic Conference win over Ridgewood.
"What makes him good is, No. 1, he's a competitor," coach Cal Baisley said, "and he's not afraid to show any of those pitches at any one time. And if you're a hitter and you're looking for a fastball because it's a fastball count, you're probably not getting a fastball.
"That's because he's smart, he knows when to throw his fastball. He can throw any pitch any time he wants to for a strike. So far he's had that ability; when we need that big out, he gets the big out."
Neste also plays first base and brings a timely bat to the lineup -- his 15 RBI are tied for sixth in the county -- but his biggest contribution has been on the mound, where he has 46 strikeouts.
For that, Neste gives thanks to pitching coach Mike Marshall. County officials might constantly butt heads with the 1974 National League Cy Young Award winner, but he's still the local pitching guru. Of course, Marshall's philosophy is not without some controversy.
"He believes that we can throw every day, that I can throw every game," Neste said. "He believes it strengthens your arm and I don't feel any pain. I work with 30-pound wrist weights and throw a 12-pound shot put like a baseball.
"He's taught me that I don't have to blow by guys. I can outsmart them. Everybody wants to hit a fastball, but they can't hit the off-speed pitches.
"A lot of guys are taught after they throw, they ice down their arm and they run. There's nothing wrong with that. But I have no problems with Mike. The town gives him trash, the neighbors complain, but he's a really talented guy. I throw every day with no problems. He's a genius."
Of course, Baisley noted the only problem is when Neste struggles with his mechanics.
"My response to all his theories are basically, "Hey, you can stand on your head and spit nickels if you want as long as it gets people out,"' Baisley said. "He doesn't just go out there. He has an intense regime. Anyone who works that hard you have to respect.
"But the training really is different and controversial. I told (Neste) the problem really arises when he struggles. It's very hard to correct the form because you're not familiar with it. But I do respect the fact that he works at it and puts the time into it."
Which explains why Neste was ready to step into the Gators' rotation when injuries decimated it before the season even began.
"That kind of put Rich in some starts in the beginning of the year," Baisley said, "and he took the ball and ran with it."
Neste thought last season would be his break-out year, but fate had other plans. Instead, Land O'Lakes was blessed with three starters -- Derek Thompson, Kurt Shafer and Cory Doyne -- who were all selected in the amateur draft, a remarkable feat for any prep team.
Neste said he doesn't think he and teammate Jose Santa even pitched a combined 10 innings last season. Yet the two are now a combined 11-1.
He doesn't miss all those radar guns, however.
"We don't have 20 scouts lining up like last year anymore," Neste said. "Good, because I just want to pitch."
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