CINCINNATI -- Pat Neshek, who joined the Cardinals in an under-the-radar Minor League deal in February, has emerged as their most dominant reliever through the first eight weeks of the season.
With two more shutout innings on Thursday, Neshek stretched his scoreless appearance streak to 18. It's the longest such string of scoreless outings in Neshek's career, bettering the 15 he had from April 21-May 23, 2007. That came in Neshek's first full big league season, when he was with the Twins.
Now, seven years, four teams and a Tommy John surgery later, Neshek said: "I feel just like I did when I was at my peak. That's how I feel right now."
He has been scored upon in just two of his 23 appearances this season. During this stretch of scoreless games, Neshek has been nearly untouchable. He's walked one, struck out 19 and allowed five hits in 16 2/3 innings. Of the 15 runners he's inherited during that span, four have scored. The success has slowly earned Neshek a more prominent role, too.
A pitcher the Cardinals first thought would be mostly limited to right-on-right opportunities is now considered a late-inning option.
"He's been a very pleasant surprise, and a much different pitcher than even what we saw scouting him before he came in," manager Mike Matheny said. "He was a guy we kind of anticipated would be a Randy Choate-style, get him in for a hitter, maybe two, then we're going to have to bump him out, and that would take a toll on our bullpen. But the way he's thrown, he's been able to show versatility. Those are huge benefits to our club, to where he can come in and be a late-inning pitcher for us."
Neshek credits his early-season success to the resurgence of his fastball and his ability to handcuff left-handed hitters with his changeup. He's also thrilled to be pitching in meaningful spots again, something he didn't do much of in Oakland in 2013.
"It just motivates you to want to come to the field and know you're a useful piece to the bullpen," Neshek said. "Last year, it wasn't fun at all. Man, the situations are great. I love the pressure being on. I can't complain one bit about how they're using me."
Off Cards' 40-man roster, Butler heads to Japan
CINCINNATI -- Joey Butler came off the Cardinals' 25-man roster on Wednesday, but instead of returning to Triple-A Memphis, he is headed for Japan.
The Cardinals announced on Friday that, after request outing release waivers on Butler, they sold his contract to the Orix club of the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball League. The move opened up a spot on the Cardinals' 40-man roster and also netted the organization an undisclosed amount of cash.
General manager John Mozeliak said that Orix recently contacted the Cardinals expressing interest in acquiring a hitter from Triple-A. The Cardinals decided that they could part with Butler, who was going to be a fourth outfielder if he returned to Memphis.
"I really was impressed with what he did for us," Mozeliak said of Butler, who hit .360 with four homers and 20 RBIs in 31 Triple-A games. "I think he's a really talented guy. But between what you had going on in the big leagues and what you have going on in Memphis, his playing time is going to dwindle both places. For him to be able to go out and make those kinds of dollars in Japan is a great opportunity for him."
Butler went 0-for-5 during his recent stint with the Cardinals. The 28-year-old was claimed on waivers by the Cardinals during the offseason.
With Butler now out of the Triple-A outfield mix, it could open up a spot for another outfielder on that roster. Double-A Springfield outfielder James Ramsey would seem a candidate for a callup after a strong start to his season. Through 40 games, Ramsey is batting .305/.393/.583 with 34 runs scored, 11 homers and 28 RBIs. He has missed the past few games due to shoulder discomfort, but Mozeliak said the injury is not serious.
So could a promotion be on the horizon?
"At some point, it may," Mozeliak said. "It's crowded to begin with. Giving [Butler] this opportunity is good for him, and now we'll kind of work through our own number issues as we continue to go on."
Cards' prospect trio thriving at Triple-A
CINCINNATI -- It was a standout night for the Cardinals' trio of Triple-A outfielders on Wednesday, as the three combined for eight hits in Memphis' game. It took merely 24 hours for Oscar Taveras, Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk to repeat the performance on Thursday.
The three promising prospects continue to thrive and draw the attention of the Major League coaching staff, though general manager John Mozeliak still preaches patience as the Cardinals aren't ready to call any of three up without regular playing time available.
And once the Cardinals eventually determine the when, they'll seemingly have a challenging time figuring out the who. All three could make the case that they are ready for a chance.
"That's great to see," Mozeliak said. "And the fact that the production level is so high from those guys, it really might be who is the best fit at the time.
"For me, the timetable is always fluid. It's about what you may do to try and jumpstart something up here. There is also a point where someone down there, it may just be time to give them that opportunity, and we have to become creative on how to do so. The end game right now is we believe in the players we have on this team, we want to give them some patience to try and go out and show why they're here and why they're on this club originally. For me, it's still about being patient and letting this play out a little bit."
Taveras, ranked as the Cardinals' top prospect by MLB.com, entered Friday having had three consecutive three-hit games. He ranked sixth in the Pacific Coast League with 35 RBIs, and was hitting .465 with runners in scoring position.
In 13 games since being optioned by St. Louis, Grichuk is 20-for-54 with six homers, three doubles, 16 runs and 12 RBIs. Piscotty, who had two doubles on Thursday, is batting .299/.337/.443 with 13 doubles and 26 RBIs this season.
None of the three had played a full season in Triple-A before this season, and it is that point that Mozeliak emphasized when asked if he was concerned about the young outfielders growing complacent if they continue to have success without the reward of a promotion.
"I think the fact that you look at a lot of players' career paths, they have more than 300 plate appearances at Triple-A before they get brought up," Mozeliak said. "I don't think in any way has their development or progress been stalled due to what we have going on there. I think they're pushing each other, frankly."
The Cardinals will play seven straight games in American League parks beginning on June 4, and that could present the organization with an opportunity to summon one of the three and find immediate at-bats, with the designated hitter in play.
• Roberto Espinoza, a former catcher in the Cardinals' organization and assigned hitting coach for the rookie-level team in Johnson City (Tenn.), joined the Cardinals on Thursday to serve as a bullpen catcher while Jamie Pogue was away to attend his daughter's high school graduation.
Espinoza also traveled with the club to Cincinnati and will remain with the team at least through the weekend. He is permitted to be in the bullpen in uniform during the game. Mozeliak described the setup as a trial period while the organization determines whether it would be useful to carry the extra catcher. Doing so would give the Cardinals two bullpen catchers to warm up relievers without having to call on Tony Cruz or Yadier Molina to help.
• Mozeliak said that Keith Butler is scheduled to visit Dr. George Paletta for another opinion on an elbow injury. Butler has been on the Triple-A disabled list since May 14 with a right elbow strain.
• Double-A shortstop Aledmys Diaz, who has been sidelined since April 26 due to an upper back/lat strain, is relocating to St. Louis to continue his rehab program. The Cardinals signed Diaz, a Cuban defector, to a four-year contract back in March.
• For the last few weeks, Matheny has been impressing upon his players to be demonstrative when they believe a call has been missed on the field. Gesturing is helpful to Matheny as he determines whether to use a challenge. His latest conversation on the front came with second baseman Kolten Wong, who recently returned from the Minors.
"When he sees something," Matheny said, "he's going to have to show us and let us know."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.