NEW ULM, MINN. -- Pat Neshek is accustomed to hearing people ask questions about his funky side-arm delivery and how he learned to pitch that way. But as he traveled on the south leg of the Twins Winter Caravan this week, it was a different question that everyone was asking: How's your arm feeling? "That's all anyone wants to know anymore," Neshek said with a laugh. It's no surprise that fans were eager to hear about how Neshek is doing, as it's been nearly two years since the reliever took the field for the Twins.
Neshek is 14 months removed from Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery and on track to be ready for the start of Spring Training. With pitchers and catchers set to report to Fort Myers, Fla., a month from now, Neshek is readying himself for what will be the next step in his return to the Majors, and he admits to feeling a little anxious. "I just want to face the hitters to see where I'm at and get that in my head," he said. "I want to face hitters in order to give me that total confidence back. Right now it feels like I'm killing time waiting for that to happen." Neshek has spent the majority of his time at the Twins' Spring Training complex since he first injured his elbow in a game against the White Sox in May 2008. The hope when he sustained the injury was that he would be able to return for the start of the 2009 season. But while rehabbing in Florida, he had a setback that eventually led him to undergo the ligament-replacement surgery in November 2008. "Looking back, if I would have had anything like that again, with the way I was feeling inside, I would probably just have the surgery right away," he said. "I could have possibly came back last year during the middle of the season, or if not I could have at least been on a rehab assignment or something like that. It would have just been a little bit quicker. I didn't know any better, I didn't know what was going to happen. It was tough." Neshek was forced to miss the entire 2009 season following the surgery, and his rehabilitation program officially came to an end in November. He took a few weeks off in December to give himself a rest before resuming his throwing program this month. His winter program is a little more accelerated than usual, as he has already thrown a bullpen session. It's all in an attempt to ensure that he will be ready to go when that first workout for pitchers and catchers takes place on Feb. 22. "I'm eager to see where I'm at," Neshek said. "My arm feels really good, but ... I can't really get cocky, because I don't really know what to expect. ... There are a lot of guys that had really good seasons the year they came back from [Tommy John surgery]. And while most guys are back in around 10 months, I have the benefit of having had the extra time to get myself ready." Prior to injuring his elbow, Neshek had emerged as one of the primary setup men for the Twins. He'd posted a 2.91 ERA in 120 2/3 innings since being called up in July 2006 while holding opponents to a .188 batting average. Those stats, and his unique throwing motion, had put him among the elite relievers in the game. Neshek believes he will get back to the form he had prior to the surgery, but he's also realistic that it might not happen right away. The Twins are expected to keep seven relievers, and Joe Nathan, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, Jose Mijares, Jesse Crain and newcomer Clay Condrey appear to have six of those spots locked up. Because starters Francisco Liriano, Brian Duensing and Glen Perkins are all considered to be relief options if they don't earn the fifth spot in the rotation, there is expected to be plenty of competition for that final bullpen spot. "Every guy in that bullpen is pretty solid," Neshek said. "If I don't show up with my best stuff, it might be hard to make the team. I don't know if we'll have enough spots. There are going to be some guys in Triple-A that have time in the big leagues, and they'll have to wait it out until a spot opens up. "I see the writing on the wall that if I'm not ready, they are going to go a different route. But if I come out there and have my stuff, I'd like to say that I'm going to be that person. If I don't, it might take some time. I just don't know what to expect right now. What I do know is that I have all the confidence in the world if I do have my stuff back." There have been many questions as to whether Neshek's unique throwing motion has changed following the surgery. During one of the stops on the Winter Caravan, it was one of the most frequent questions he received from fans going through the autograph line. "The other night, when we did the autograph session, it was probably every fifth person that asked that," Neshek said. "I don't know where that started. I swear it must be some Facebook thing, like, 'We heard he's throwing cricket-style.' It's pretty funny. "I can't really throw another way. Everything is going to be the same. Some people think I got injured because I throw a funny way. But I read somewhere that nearly 20 percent of pitchers in the Majors have undergone the surgery at one point in their career. Even a lot of the guys on the Twins have had it -- Carl Pavano, Brian Duensing, Francisco Liriano. So I don't think how I throw has anything to do with it." The last two years have not been easy on Neshek. It's been a draining battle, both physically and mentally, to come back from the elbow injury. But when he steps on the field for the first workout next month, all of that will fade. "It's kind of a weird feeling. It's like a test," Neshek said of heading to Spring Training. "I'm ready to go out there, but I have to prove to everybody that I have my stuff back and I can get guys out. I'll be happy if I just go out there and have my stuff back. I just want to be healthy and go through the full season and get back what I had. I think I've got it, but I don't know until I face hitters. I'm just excited to get going."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.