SOUTH BEND — What you learn early in baseball is that being rigid and unwilling to adapt will not always serve you well.
Players have to make changes, some subtle and some pronounced, to succeed.
“It’s a game of adjustments at every level,” South Bend Cubs manager Jimmy Gonzalez said. “Some guys make them quicker than others.”
Gonzalez and his field staff — hitting coach Jesus Feliciano, pitching coach Brian Lawrence and assistant coach Osmin Melendez — are there to point out those adjustments.
“We don’t always tell them right there during the game,” Gonzalez said. “But it’s something we do during the season — individual or as a group.”
South Bend pitcher Ryan McNeil is making the adjustment from starter to reliever, a change brought on by an arm injury.
McNeil, a 6-foot-3 right-hander from southern California, was chosen by the Chicago Cubs in the third round of the 2012 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. His first pro season came that summer and consisted of 20 innings and eight appearances (six as a starter) for the rookie level Arizona Cubs.
In McNeil’s first spring training camp in 2013, injury struck.
“My elbow blew out on me,” McNeil said. “I had to have Tommy John surgery.”
When McNeil returned to action in 2014 with the short-season Boise Hawks, it was as a reliever. He worked 16 innings, and all eight of his appearances came out of the bullpen.
Besides a spot start, McNeil has been used in relief for the 2015 South Bend Cubs. He recently pitched three one-hit innings against Quad Cities.
The 21-year-old said the transition makes sense for him.
“Before surgery I was a starter,” McNeil said. “Coming back, it’s always kind of tough to fit that role again. I’ve kind of fit the long relief role. It’s been a little easier for me.”
While the routine is different than for a starter, relievers tend to be used in a pre-planned way in South Bend. They usually know which days they might be used and can prepare accordingly.
“Generally, they’ll give you at least two days off (after an appearance),” McNeil said. “It’s pretty structured.”
Going back to his days with the Nipomo (Calif.) High School Titans, McNeil’s best pitch has been his fastball.
Post-Tommy John has been an adjustment to get his other pitches where he wants them.
“Coming back from surgery, it’s really tough getting a feel back for my secondary pitches,” McNeil said. “Last year, I struggled a lot with command of my slider and change-up. But this year, they’re both coming around. Any pitch, any count, I’m confident.