ATLANTA — Pat Neshek is not only a baseball player, he is also a baseball fan.
"I read the box scores," he said.
When Neshek checks out the standings these days, he sees that his old team, the Houston Astros, is the best in baseball, and his current team, the Phillies, is the worst.
Does it make the 36-year-old relief pitcher long to be back in Houston?
"God, no," Neshek said with a look of mild horror crossing his face.
Neshek joined the Phillies in a November cash deal. Essentially, it was a salary dump for the Astros. The Phillies assumed Neshek's $6.5 million salary for 2017 and bought themselves some bullpen stability, not to mention a potential July trade chip that has recently added some shine.
"It was a great trade for both of us," Neshek said. "They got to shed some salary. I got to get out of there and do more."
Neshek had an All-Star season with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2014 and signed a three-year deal with the improving Astros before the 2015 season. He pitched in 66 games in 2015 and 60 last season but did not enjoy his role.
"I kind of became a bit player there," he said. "In '15, I did a lot of eighth-inning stuff and I think I was second or third in the league in holds, but I had a bad final month where they kind of just gave up on me. In '16, I just became a sixth-inning righty specialist guy and it was awful. I knew I could do a lot more. So when the trade (to the Phillies) happened I was thrilled. This was the best thing that happened to me in a few years.
"I can understand why (the Astros) did it. They have a bullpen that’s pretty well-stocked over there. So I'm real happy to be out — if not I would rather have been a free agent than gone back there, which may sound crazy but it gets to the point where you just want to do more. I would almost rather retire than do a role like I was doing for them. It was miserable."
Neshek is anything but miserable with the Phillies.
He's enjoyed his time with the club immensely and would like to hang around and see where the team's rebuild goes.
But that's probably not going to happen. He is pitching his way out of a Phillies uniform. When Hector Neris wobbled in the ninth inning Tuesday night, manager Pete Mackanin summoned Neshek for a two-out save. Neshek got that save — his first in two years — on five pitches. The performance left him at 22 innings for the season. He'd allowed just 13 hits and two runs while walking just four and striking out 21.
"Relieving is a really tough business," Neshek said. "Confidence and getting on a roll is a big part of it."
Contending teams are always looking for veteran bullpen help at the trade deadline. General manager Matt Klentak knew that when he acquired Neshek. Ditto for Clay Buchholz, Howie Kendrick, Michael Saunders and Joaquin Benoit, all veteran offseason pickups who were seen as potential mid-season trade chips.
Buchholz is out for the season with an elbow injury, Kendrick missed more than a month with an abdominal injury, Saunders has struggled offensively and Benoit, currently on the disabled list, has had ups and downs. Of the group of players added over the winter, Neshek has emerged as the best trade chip.
Does he expect to be moved?
"I would say yes," he said. "It would be really cool to stay around here. I like it here. I feel very comfortable here. But if that happens …"
"I'm sure it will happen," he said with a laugh.
It's unclear what Neshek will bring back, but his value will only rise if he continues to pitch well. His role with the Phillies is evolving. While Mackanin would like to eventually see Neris lock down the closer's job, Neshek was set to fill the role on Wednesday night — the Phils lost 14-1 to the Braves and did not need a closer — and could get the call in the coming days if a need arises.
"People make a big deal about who the closer is," Neshek said. "You kind of pitch into those roles.
"I'm just out there competing. It's me against that hitter. I'll go over the hitters' weaknesses and try to attack."
For now, that'll be with the Phillies.