Baseball has been mostly a waiting game this year for former UCSB pitcher Kyle Nelson.
He played it on the grass at Santa Barbara’s La Mesa and Shoreline parks during last spring’s COVID-19 lockdown. Baseball got even stranger two months ago when the Cleveland Indians started pitching him in simulated games at their alternate facility in Eastlake, Ohio.
“There wouldn’t be enough players,” Nelson pointed out, “so I might have no left fielder or no first baseman. It was obviously an extremely weird scenario.”
Perhaps the oddest part for the left-handed reliever was his catcher during quarantine in Santa Barbara: Cleveland ace Shane Bieber, this year’s favorite to win the Cy Young Award.
“It brought some comfort to both of us to be able to play catch together,” said Bieber, who was Nelson’s teammate during UCSB’s run to the College World Series in 2016. “We know each other’s stuff so well.”
And now they’ll try to make a run together to an even bigger World Series. The Indians promoted Bieber’s offseason housemate to the big leagues on Wednesday. Nelson made his MLB debut during the eighth inning of Thursday’s 11-1 loss to Kansas City.
Nelson’s ascent in professional baseball, which began when the Indians selected him in the 15th round of the 2017 MLB Amateur Draft, was nearly as meteoric as Bieber’s. He was promoted twice last year — from Single-A Lynchburg to Double-A Akron, and then to Triple-A Columbus.
He recorded nine saves, four wins, an ERA of 2.28 and 69 strikeouts in 47 innings for the three teams combined. He’d pitched well enough by midsummer to earn a spot on the Eastern League’s Double-A All-Star Team. He was daring to dream of even bigger things on Feb. 13 when he arrived in Goodyear, Ariz.
“I was feeling strong and in a good spot going into spring training,” Nelson said. “Two weeks prior to the shutdown, I’d thrown in a couple of games… I was just starting to feel good and get into my groove and in the strike zone.
“I was anticipating breaking camp with the Triple-A team, and then hopefully pitching well. And if a spot opened up, I’d be that guy… And then everything changed with the pandemic.”
The Indians left Nelson and Bieber to their own devices when they sent them home to Santa Barbara in March.
“It was definitely a mental grind, never knowing, ‘When is this ever going to end? Are we even going to play this year?’” Nelson said.
He caught some occasional grief along with the baseball while working out. One lady, Bieber said, “ripped them pretty good” for playing at the park during the lockdown.
“They think we’re playing catch just to have a catch,” he said. “I’m like, ‘I have to keep up with this. This is my job. I have to stay ready.’
“I was like, ‘Listen, this is a public spot. We’ll be quick here.’”
They eventually got to pitch off a mound at Westmont College. A return to a Major League diamond, however, took longer than expected.
“It was interesting being in my position, not being on the big-league club and not knowing exactly what that meant for me,” Nelson said. “‘Would I be playing? Would I be on the taxi squad?’ I told myself that if I’ve got nothing better to do, I’ve got to get ready to be called for that.
“They set the roster… and I got called.”
He reported to the Indians’ summer camp on July 1 and made an immediate impression. Indians infielder Mike Freeman joked about passing on batting practice against Nelson because of his “elite slider.” In 2018, Baseball America rated the breaking ball as the best in the Indians’ farm system.
“I chose not to take the at-bat for a reason,” Freeman said. “Just kidding, kind of. But I did watch him throw from behind and his stuff will play.”
UCSB coach Andrew Checketts said MLB’s new rule requiring pitchers to face at least three batters before leaving a game “suits him well.”
“His slider is as tough on right-handed hitters as it is on lefthanders,” he said. “He’ll make his mark in the big leagues for a long time. I think Nelly is going to have some value.”
Nelson’s minor-league statistics last year bear that out: Right-handed batters hit just .159 against him while lefties hit .186.
It wasn’t easy, however, to keep an edge at a training facility for two months. After getting two quick outs on Thursday, Kansas City touched him up with Whit Merrifield’s RBI single and Adalberto Mondesi’s three-run home run.
“It is a similar routine to fall ball (at UCSB),” Nelson said. “You’re facing the same hitters, over and over… You have to mentally get over, ‘Yeah, these are my teammates, but I need to compete… This is essentially my season, so I have to get my work in whether I get recalled or not.’”
His spare time, meanwhile, offered little opportunities beyond television and video games.
“Call of Duty definitely passed a lot of time for me,” he said.
He’ll get the chance to answer a few more important calls in the coming weeks.