Tuesday, January 29, 2013

#491 - Roger Nelson

This is the penultimate card of Roger Nelson’s. I’ve been looking to use that word for some time and Roger’s post is as good as any, particularly given the season he just had. The Reds played two series at Shea during ’73, one in early May when things were going pretty well for Roger, and one in August, when they were not. In between he spent a lot of time on the DL from an elbow injury that would require surgery after the season. While his abbreviated numbers were pretty good and he’d make his post-season debut with a couple shutout innings the year was a big disappointment after his big renaissance the prior season. Still this card is a huge uptick to his ’75 one with an airbrushed close-up showing how Coke bottle-y those glasses of his truly were. But at least he went out with a smile.

Roger Nelson was born and raised in California and in high school in Covina he was a cross country runner, defensive basketball star, and a pitcher. His senior year he went 8-2 while putting up an ERA of 0.56 – two losses? – on lots of strikeouts. That year of ’63 he was signed by the White Sox and that summer in Rookie ball he continued the big K totals, with 83 in 64 innings. But he was wild also and only went 5-4 with a 4.78 ERA. In ’64 he improved his ERA a bunch in A ball to 2.62 on better control while setting a league strikeout record and in ’65 he posted his best record at that level with a 9-7 on a 3.12 ERA. In ’66 he went 6-10 in Double A with a 3.78 ERA on improving control and the next year spent all his time in the pen in Triple A where his control continued to get better but his ERA got pretty fat. He debuted for the Sox that September and gave up only a solo homer in his seven innings of work. After the season he went to Baltimore in a big trade that saw Don Buford go east with him and Luis Aparicio return to the Sox.

The plan for Nelson with the Orioles was to bring him up into the pen and let him work his way into the rotation but things didn’t quite work out that way. Roger had to do a bunch of service time and when he returned he put up some really nice numbers in swing work for the O’s. It got noticed because that winter the new Kansas City franchise made him its first pick in the expansion draft. The immediate results were pretty good as Roger threw the team’s first shutout but poor run support led to a losing record even though his ERA was way better than average. In ’70 he was expected to be one of the rotation’s top guys but things went south really fast when tendonitis completely wrecked his season. It was a slow comeback and most of ’71 was spent in Triple A where he went 2-3 in only eleven starts before putting up some not great numbers in KC. That year he was advised to learn a knuckleball to reduce the strain on his arm. But Roger, whose nickname was Spider due to his lots of flailing body parts when he pitched, was never comfortable with that pitch. So prior to the ’72 season he decided to go back to the heat and he returned to the big club, starting the season in the pen. But his work was so good that before long he was in the rotation. He nearly no-hit the Red Sox, giving up only an eighth-inning single to Ben Oglivie, and had a nice long run of shutout innings. By the time he was done he was 11-6 with a club-record 2.08 ERA that still stands. He put up a total of six shutouts and he led the AL in lowest amount of base runners per nine innings. He was named Royals Pitcher of the Year but by the time of the award dinner he’d been traded to Cincinnati with Richie Scheinblum, the other big Royals surprise in ’72, for Wayne Simpson and Hal McRae.

That trade was hugely beneficial for the Royals as both Scheinblum and Nelson would go on to have some tough times career-wise. Roger had that nasty ’73 and when he returned after his operation he had the Reds’ best pitching stats of spring training. But Roger couldn’t get too much starting time that year and he only got in a dozen of them, going 4-4 with a 3.38 ERA. Following the season he was sold to the White Sox for whom he again had an excellent spring, putting up a 1.13 ERA. But he didn’t work into Chicago’s plans and he was released before camp broke. He hooked up with Oakland and for the A’s it was strictly a Triple A year where he went 7-8 with a 3.73 ERA in twenty starts. After being released he returned as a free agent to KC where he again did the Triple A thing, this time going 6-6 with a 3.00 ERA and 16 saves, all in relief. He put in his last time up top that year, again posting a 2.08 ERA, though this time in only nine innings. In ’77 he returned to Omaha where he again recorded 16 saves while going 5-3 and in ’78 he reprised that role for Pittsburgh’s Triple A club, recording ten saves and three wins. In ’79 he threw a game in the Pittsburgh system before going to Mexico to pitch for Chihuahua. That was his last year. Roger went 29-32 with a 3.06 ERA, 20 complete games, seven shutouts, and four saves up top and 51-56 with a 3.55 ERA and 42 saves in the minors. In the playoffs he threw hitless ball in a couple innings.

Roger Nelson is a tough name to track and most sites point you to the musician Prince, whose full name is Prince Rogers Nelson. But whatever he did following baseball he retired from in 2000, so there’s a pretty good shot he was quite successful at it since he’d have only been 56 around then. In the 2005 headline from which I garnered that bit Roger indicated he and his wife Marion had been living since his retirement mostly on the road in their RV and were having a great time. It appears that these days his quasi-permanent residence is in Florida.

That first star bullet refers to a game in which Roger threw 14 innings and struck out 22 batters. Roger looks like a cross-country guy. No knock, just sayin’.

From a former Red to a fairly short-lived one, this one should be short:

1. Nelson and Pete Rose ’73 to ’74 Reds;
2. Rose and Vada Pinson ’63 to ’68 Reds.    

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