Trey Nielsen was drafted out of high school as a pitcher in the 42nd round by the Chicago Cubs in 2010.
He threw a few bullpen sessions as a freshman at the University of Utah, but the coaching staff decided to make Nielsen the team’s third baseman. He hit .318 and picked up second-team all-Mountain West Conference Honors that season for the Utes.
Nielsen said he loved playing third base, but he wanted to pitch again by the time he was a junior. Utah put a plan in place for Nielsen to play the field and pitch in 2013, and the right-hander earned a spot as a starter.
One week before the season, in his final intersquad start, he sprained the ulnar collateral ligament of his elbow. He rehabbed but only threw six innings that season.
Nielsen’s finally finding out what he’s capable of on the mound in his first professional season with the State College Spikes. The right-hander has gone 3-1 with a 1.52 ERA in 10 appearances for State College. After limiting opponents to three earned runs in 17 2/3 as a reliever, Nielsen has transitioned into the Spikes’ rotation.
In three starts, he’s allowed two runs on six hits in 12 innings.
“It’s nothing really new to me,” Nielsen said. “It’s just this level is different – jumping onto the mound at this level is a lot different compared to where I pitched prior to this. But for the most part, I’m comfortable. It’s just a matter of settling in and understanding the pro system and the way pro ball works.”
State College’s game Wednesday against Aberdeen was postponed due to rain. The Spikes and IronBirds will play a doubleheader Thursday starting at 6 p.m., with both games set to go seven innings.
Nielsen knew in college his best shot at professional baseball was as a pitcher, and he was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 30th round of the 2013 First-Year Player Draft last June. He underwent Tommy John surgery later that month.
He spent part of last summer in Jupiter, Fla., starting the rehab process. During the offseason, he lifted and followed a throwing program to ensure he’d be ready for spring training.
Nielsen arrived in State College, set to begin his career out of the bullpen.
He was sharp in nearly every outing before moving into the rotation to make his first start against Vermont on July 16. He threw four no-hit innings, striking out three and walking one to start what’s been a seamless transition.
“He’s a structured kid to begin with,” Spikes manager Oliver Marmol said, “so I think this lends itself well to his personality just the way he likes going about things. It allows us to monitor his pitch count and his innings a little bit better with days of rest.”
In his second start, Nielsen allowed two runs in four innings against Mahoning Valley. On Monday, he made his third start and limited Mahoning Valley to one hit in four scoreless innings.
“I’ve found that was the biggest thing was just changing up the routine and preparing for the start,” Nielsen said. “It’s a lot different because I have so much time off in between starts compared to the bullpen where I pitch and I have a day off and then I’m back on. The transition’s going well though – a few tweaks here and there.”
Bullpen endures up-and-down month
In the days before State College’s series against Auburn last week, Marmol spoke with the bullpen about its drop-off in performance.
The Spikes relievers had allowed 12 runs in 13 innings during their three-game series at Tri-City.
Their five-inning, one-run night in a victory over Auburn last Thursday marked the continued return to form of the bullpen. State College had limited opponents to two runs in 13 innings in three straight games, and Marmol was pleased to see the improvement.
But in their last five games, Spikes relievers have allowed 16 runs in 19 1/3 innings. The State College bullpen has been steady for much of the season, but it’s been an up-and-down stretch for the relievers, who have contributed to the team’s 3.20 ERA – good for third-lowest in the New York-Penn League going into Wednesday night.
“In my eyes, there’s not one guy that can’t go out there and get the job done,” Spikes reliever Kyle Grana said. “So I mean just knowing that your name might not get called but someone else is going go in there and get the job done.”
Grana (3-1, 1.05) suffered his first loss of the season on Monday. He and Jacob Booden combined to walk four and allow two runs in the eighth inning, failing to protect a Spikes lead in a 3-2 loss to Mahoning Valley.
Grana has been State College’s top reliever, allowing three earned runs and striking out 39 in 25 2/3 innings. Jeff Rauh is 4-0 with a 2.73 ERA, and left-hander Nick Lomascolo is 1-0 with a 2.84 ERA.
Booden (1-2, 4.30) has struggled with his command, walking eight in his last four appearances.
Booden and Lomascolo led the New York-Penn League with 17 appearances each going into Wednesday, while Grana and Rauh were tied for second with 16.
The relievers have handled the heavy workload and developed a bond in the bullpen.
“It’s just a bunch of being goofy, throwing seeds,” Grana said. “Everybody told me professional baseball was a lot about yourself, and on this team, I don’t see that at all. We’re a family right now and we all get along, there’s not anybody that anybody really dislikes.”