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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Nelson Figueroa ’98 leads Pawtucket Red Sox into playoffs

Published: September 6, 2012
Section: Sports, Top Stories

Nelson Figueroa ’98 is not your typical professional pitcher: He doesn’t have plus velocity, reaching speeds of only 87 to 89 mph.

“I don’t think he ever threw in the 90s … the radar gun was a little biased,” Brandeis baseball coach Pete Varney said. “I think his success comes from his guile, courage, intestinal fortitude, his command over multiple pitches and his ability to locate his fastball.”

The problem with not having plus velocity in the major leagues is that it severely limits the range of the plate you can hit. When you can pitch in the upper 90s, you can target a wide portion of the plate; however, when you can only reach the upper 80s, you have to be able to locate your pitches very precisely.

While Figueroa lacked plus velocity Saturday night in Pawtucket, he had complete command of his fastball location as well as a strong breaking ball and changeup to keep hitters off balance. The result was eight scoreless innings from Figueroa to lead the minor league squad to a 2-0 shutout against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre at McCoy Stadium, thereby clinching a spot in the postseason.

Varney explained Figueroa’s display of talent in college.

“It was obvious to anyone that he had the stuff to succeed. In order to attract scouts, you have to have some kind of innate ability. He was a very talented player and through his own maturation process, he continued to develop and pitch well and he signed with the majors and took it from there,” Varney said.

The New York Mets drafted Figueroa in the 30th round of the 1995 MLB draft with the 833rd overall pick but then traded him to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Figueroa made his major league debut in 2000 with the Diamondbacks, becoming the first Brandeis alumnus to pitch in the major leagues. Figueroa struggled that year, going 0-1 in three starts with a 7.47 ERA. During the next few years, he bounced around the majors before playing in foreign leagues in 2007 after being unable to attain a roster spot in major and minor league baseball.

Figueroa returned to the majors on April 11, 2008 as a New York Met, pitching six innings and allowing only two hits, two walks and striking out six to get the win. Unfortunately, shortly after this strong outing, Figueroa was sent back to the minors. The Mets called him up again on the last day of the 2009 regular season. He then pitched a four hit complete game shutout, striking out seven batters. Additionally, in the same game, he hit a two-run triple.

During the next three years, Figueroa once again bounced around the majors with short stints with the Philadelphia Phillies, Houston Astros, Pittsburgh Pirates, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

Figueroa explained how extremely challenging the past season was for him.

“I signed with Toronto to go to spring training coming off of winning a championship in the Dominican Republic. They didn’t have room or plans for me. It was the hardest thing that has ever happened to me,” he said in an interview after Saturday’s game.

After being waived by the Blue Jays, he returned home for two weeks before signing with the Yankees.

“I thought it was a blessing in disguise being from Brooklyn, but they also didn’t have room for me and released me even though I was pitching well,” he said.

Five days after being released by the Yankees, Figueroa signed a minor league contract with the Boston Red Sox and was immediately assigned to Triple-A Pawtucket. Once Figueroa arrived in Pawtucket, he was immediately thrust into a playoff race. As more and more Pawtucket players were promoted to the majors, Pawtucket started to struggle and it looked like they might miss the playoffs after once enjoying a commanding lead.

On Sept. 1, Figueroa took the mound for Pawtucket against the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Yankees. With a win, Pawtucket clinched a playoff spot with Figueroa pitching a gem under pressure. He threw eight shutout innings on 110 pitches, allowing only four hits and one walk while striking out six. He credited his successful outing to the “same thing that’s worked well for 18 years: throw strikes, get outs and try to keep the hitters off balance.”

It was a “huge outing for us to get this over with and now focus on the playoffs. These guys have worked their butts off all year long and I got to watch them from the other side with everything they did and then all of a sudden see so many pieces change, it kind of got us a little worried but the guys that came up from Portland played a major role,” Figueroa said.

In particular, catcher Dan Butler played a huge role, hitting two home runs, which accounted for the only runs of the game.

Figueroa spoke of his short time with the Red Sox in glowing terms. “[They] gave me the opportunity to step into a role and kind of guide these guys along the way, to be this close to Brandeis and finally have on a Boston Red Sox uniform is a dream come true.”

Figueroa still firmly believes that he has the stuff and ability to contribute to a major league club. “I think we’ve seen over the years that velocity isn’t everything. I’ve done it this long without plus velocity so I don’t think my velocity will hurt a major league club.”

Referencing his strong performance, Figueroa continued, “I think I’ve shown everything I could. I’ve pitched really well these past two games going into the playoffs. If it happens, I’ll be tremendously excited. Putting on a major league uniform is a great honor. There are only 750 players in the majors, but I have no expectations other than helping this team getting as far as they can go.”

Figueroa spoke very highly of his time at Brandeis, crediting Coach Varney for his continued success. “[Coach] Varney kept telling me I was going to be a pitcher in professional baseball. He was sure of it. Back then I was 180 pounds throwing 80 miles per hour. He put that dream in my head and I busted my butt.

He still drives me today. I heard his voice tonight in those last two innings telling me try to throw strikes, get ahead of guys, try to hit your spots [and] don’t overthrow.”

Figueroa has enjoyed a lengthy career that many players would strive for; however, the one thing he has never been able to do is consistently pitch for one team in the major leagues. Still, he iterates that “I’ve been very blessed to play this long and have come into contact with the people that I have.”