INDIANAPOLIS – He never had a major league player from his hometown to look up to as a kid. But he may end up being that person for future generations.
Indianapolis reliever Dovydas Neverauskas is the first player from Lithuania to sign a professional contract with a major league organization. And he may become the first MLB player from that country in 80 years.
That could happen sooner than later, which would complete an impressive resurrection of his career over the past two seasons. Neverauskas will represent the World Team in the Futures Game tonight in San Diego. Indianapolis center fielder Austin Meadows was selected to play for Team USA in the game, but a hamstring injury will keep him from playing.
Neverauskas’ participation in the Futures Game might give him a chance to show how close he is to the big leagues.
“I think the old thing is consistency and he’s shown enough to me that I think he could go to the big leagues and pitch right now,” Indianapolis pitching coach Stan Kyles said.
Neverauskas has come a long ways from his beginnings in the sport. Growing up in Lithuania, kids predominantly played two sports: basketball and soccer. Neverauskas was the rare one who got into baseball, but he had a mentor close to home: his father, Virmidas.
“That’s the reason he stayed with baseball his whole life,” Neverauskas said. “Because he saw something in me when I was a kid. I grew up and here we are.”
Neverauskas started playing baseball when he was a first grader. There were no fields in the area to play on at that time, but the group eventually found two old soccer fields they were able to use as a baseball field. But even that field was filled with rocks, making groundballs an adventure. Once the cold weather settled in, they would be forced to practice in gyms on basketball courts.
But the sport has experienced some growth in the country in recent years. A handful of players will play collegiately, with one playing in a summer collegiate league. Neverauskas is not only representing his family, but his country.
“Making it to the major leagues would be a really big step forward for developing kids – to see a guy that has reached,” he said. “Most of the kids didn’t want to play because they didn’t see any potential. … I didn’t have anyone to look up to.”
Neverauskas was signed as an international free agent in 2009 and spent a majority of his first two seasons with the GCL Pirates. His climb through the Pirates organization initially was stagnating when used as a starter. Neverauskas had a 5.60 ERA and 1.67 WHIP in 26 starts with West Virginia in 2014.
And his first five starts of 2015 didn’t go much better. Neverauskas had a 7.85 ERA as a starter in West Virginia, allowing 16 runs in 18.1 innings. But the organization decided to switch Neverauskas to a reliever. He took to that role – seemingly instantly — and has never looked back.
Neverauskas made 13 relief appearances with West Virginia in 2015 and posted a 1.16 ERA, allowing four runs in 31 innings. He allowed just 19 hits and four walks in those relief appearances, for a miniscule 0.74 WHIP.
A relief role allows Neverauskas’ pitches to work better without having to go through an order two or three times. But one big change to go along with the move to the bullpen was his switch to a two-seam fastball. Since the age of 17, Neverauskas has been able to hit 95 MPH with his fastball. However, he lacked control with the pitch throughout his minor league career. The Pirates switched him to the more forgiving two-seamer in 2015, allowing him to throw the pitch over the plate without worrying about it getting hit a long way.
The two-seamer originally was sitting in the low 90s. That has changed this year, with his old velocity returning to the new pitch. Neverauskas is now sitting in the mid-90s as a reliever, and has been clocked at 99 MPH this season. That velocity, along with the control of the new pitch, has made a huge difference.
Another thing working for him out of the bullpen is his slider, or more accurately, his sliders. He throws two different sliders. One of them is harder and has a sharp break away from right-handers, reaching 91-92 MPH. The other one is a couple MPH slower, and acts like a cutter. Those pitches pair well with the improved fastball.
After beginning the season with Altoona, Neverauskas was promoted to Indianapolis on June 15. He’s made 10 relief appearances with the Indians, posting a 1.86 ERA and 1.26 WHIP.
“I’m still adjusting,” Neverauskas said. “There are different hitters, different zones. We get squeezed a little more. There are better hitters that are more patient. I’m not saying Double-A hitters aren’t like that, but not all nine guys. Plus, you’re facing some guys that have major league experience and have played at the top level.”
The pitches Neverauskas has are good, with his slider improving and mixing well with a fastball in the mid- to upper-90s. He doesn’t walk many batters now – just one in 10 appearances with the Indians – but he needs to not fall behind to hitters. Opponents are hitting .250 against Neverauskas when he’s ahead in the count, but .334 when he’s behind in the count.
“He’s got to come in and work ahead of hitters,” Indianapolis manager Dean Treanor said. “He can have a tendency to get behind and he really needs to be aggressive and get ahead.”
Neverauskas is not on the 40-man roster, but will become a minor league free agent after the season if he’s not added. With the success he’s having at the Triple-A level, using mid-90s fastball and much improved slider – we could see the Pirates bringing him up later in the year to see how he performs at the MLB level.