Wichita Wingnuts

Pirates purchase contract of Wingnuts’ Matt Nevarez

Wingnuts catcher Chris McMurray, left, congratulates pitcher Matt Nevarez (31) after closing out the game against Sioux Falls at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium on July 9.
Wingnuts catcher Chris McMurray, left, congratulates pitcher Matt Nevarez (31) after closing out the game against Sioux Falls at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium on July 9. The Wichita Eagle

Until Thursday, the lasting image of Matt Nevarez for many of the affiliated baseball organizations that show interest in him has been one held up by a doctor.

Nevarez, the now-former Wingnuts’ closer who did his job as well as any pitcher on the independent level, has experienced plenty of interest from major-league organizations.

Much of it went nowhere because of past health problems, until Nevarez was sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday with a little more than two weeks remaining in the independent-league season. He’ll report to Double-A Altoona (Pa.) with a chance to pitch in the Triple-A postseason if the Pirates’ affiliate qualifies.

Just more than a year after a torn labrum forced Nevarez to miss almost all of 2013 and led to his release from the Tampa Bay Rays’ minor-league system, the Pirates were apparently satisfied by the condition of his shoulder. Nevarez has used it to consistently uncork a fastball that approaches 100 mph and to rack up 23 saves with a 1.59 ERA this season.

“It’s a great experience, even though I’ve gone through something like this before,” Nevarez said Thursday. It’s late in the season, so it’s a little bittersweet having to leave the (Wingnuts) this late. But it’s a great opportunity, and my agent thought we should jump on it.”

If Nevarez, a 10th-round pick of the Texas Rangers in 2005 out of San Fernando (Calif.) High, had been the pitcher four years ago that he is now, he may have made it past Double-A, his highest level reached.

The 6-foot-4 Nevarez underwent elbow ligament replacement surgery that forced him to miss the entire 2007 season while in the Texas Rangers chain. He was effective upon his return, but the missed year of development had him pitching in Class A even though, at 22, he was older than most of his competition.

Given his first major test in 2010 with the Astros organization after a trade for Ivan Rodriguez, Nevarez had his worst season, walking 10.8 batters per nine innings with fewer strikeouts.

He got another chance the next season in Double-A, but his numbers over 17 games were even worse and he found himself with limited options before settling in Wichita, where he regained his form.

“My command has always been my issue,” Nevarez said. “Now I’m able to go out there and compete and know that I’m able to throw strikes. Before, I was always going to the mound hoping not to throw balls or hoping to throw strikes. Now I can go out there and throw strikes with all of my pitches and compete at a higher level.”

Nevarez’s first year with the Wingnuts, 2011, reaffirmed his ability to pitch in the upper minor leagues even though he had just lost that opportunity. He pitched well and wasn’t here long, even though his first chance to leave ended with what has become a familiar occurrence.

Then battling shoulder soreness that hadn’t yet become a major issue, Nevarez was all but sold to the Boston Red Sox, who reversed course after acquiring more medical information. The shoulder didn’t scare away Tampa Bay, which signed him about a week after the Red Sox passed.

Nevarez shined in parts of two seasons with the Rays, though his 21 games in the organization weren’t enough to hold the Tampa Bay’s interest once the shoulder trouble became more serious. He tore his labrum after nine games in 2013 and underwent surgery in May, ending his relationship with the Rays.

“It’s all a numbers game,” Nevarez said last week. “I was hoping they stuck with me. My rehab was going good, I liked the organization, it was great people to be around and they took care of their guys. Everything comes to an end, and unfortunately it came to an end after I had surgery.

“I wish they had given me another chance, but I’m finally healthy and hopefully another team gives me a chance sometime.”

Those chances increased this season, to the point that his departure was practically inevitable. Nevarez was nearly sold to the San Francisco Giants earlier this summer, even traveling to San Francisco for a physical.

The Giants decided they didn’t want to take on what was basically a reclamation project, sending a 27-year-old to high-A or Double-A without assurances he was fully healthy. He did, after all, return a year after major shoulder surgery.

Nevarez also was rumored, earlier this season, to be joining the Pirates , one of about 10 organizations he’s communicated with, before it finally happened Thursday.

“That was the main issue during spring training, actually trying to throw and let it go, because during rehab you don’t really let it go until you get in a game. At the beginning of the year this year, I was still having that issue where I was like, ‘I’ve got to throw, hopefully my arm doesn’t hurt today.’ Waking up in the morning, hoping my arm feels good tomorrow morning.

“I’m to the point now where I don’t feel anything in my arm at all. I feel comfortable every day I go out and throw.”

Manager Kevin Hooper showcased Nevarez throughout the year, a double-bonus that allowed Nevarez to prove he’s healthy by pitching, for example, in three consecutive games, and enabling Hooper to frequently use his best reliever. Thursday proved the plan worked, as Nevarez said the Pirates told him they have “long-term plans” for him.

“I didn’t think anything was going to happen at all,” Nevarez said Thursday. “None of us knew it was going to happen. We thought I would get signed at the end of the season.”

Grand Prairie at Wingnuts

When: 7:05 p.m. Friday

Where: Lawrence-Dumont Stadium

Records: GP 36-45, Wichita 56-26

Radio: KWME, 92.7-FM