CEDAR RAPIDS — He’s probably the smartest guy in the clubhouse. Not that Zach Neff flaunts it.
By most accounts, the Cedar Rapids Kernels relief pitcher is a light-hearted fellow, a jokester. That he graduated from college in just three years and is one class shy of getting his Master’s degree means nothing.
At least to him.
“I guess I’m just going to figure that out when this is over with,” said Neff, when asked what he eventually wants to do with his extensive college education. “One of the mental adjustments I have made on the mound is just to be present. I think that’s kind of the way I live, and I think all of the guys would agree with me. Obviously, I have future goals and future plans, but living in the moment ... It’s easier to live that way, in my opinion.
“A lot of people get on me because they think I don’t care. Oh, you’re just going to go with the flow. But that is who I am, and I’m not worried about it. It’s nothing for me to stress about. I like to keep it loose, be me. You only get so many days to live, (so) you might as well. The only thing you’ve got to do is die.”
Neff, 23, is a Belleville, Ill., native (just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis) who had enough forethought to get a bunch of college credits out of the way while he attended Gibault Catholic High School. He went to Austin Peay University in Clarksville, Tenn., with 24 of them, which allowed him to graduate when he did.
Despite a so-so pitching career for the Governors, he landed at Southeastern Conference power Mississippi State last year as a graduate transfer, thanks to a former Austin Peay teammate who was a graduate assistant coach for the Bulldogs.
“The intention wasn’t to graduate early and transfer,” Neff said. “The intention was to get drafted (professionally) after my junior year. But my performance did not indicate that. It is what it is. I got the opportunity to go to a great school and took full advantage of that. I loved that place. Mississippi State was great.”
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Mississippi State qualified for the College World Series, and Neff threw well enough to be a 31st-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins last June. He pitched mostly for Rookie-level Elizabethton upon signing but did get in two scoreless outings after a promotion to the Kernels.
He has a 3.48 earned run average in 11 relief appearances this season for Cedar Rapids and has 31 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings. After a slow start to the season, Neff has been particularly effective over his last handful of outings, allowing just one earned run in his last 13 innings.
“I think (cold) weather is a crutch,” Neff said. “I don’t want to use that, but it does help. You’re excited to come to the ballpark when it’s 65 degrees and sunny. You are like ‘Damn, I wanna be here.’ Instead of when you are wearing three coats, and it’s 24-degree weather and you’re chasing things all around the park. So when it’s warmer, it’s easier to play, no doubt. But, again, it was just a mental adjustment I made from my first few outings. At the end of the day, I just have to attack hitters.”
You heard Neff use “mental adjustment” a lot in this interview. He excelled two summers ago in the college wood bat Coastal Plain League, which helped him land on Mississippi State’s radar.
After a poor first start for the Bulldogs, he rebounded thanks to ...
“It was basically a mental adjustment from there,” Neff said. “Our pitching coach told me it wasn’t my stuff, that my stuff works. It was really good. He just said ‘You’re going to make a mental adjustment and go out and dominate.’ I took a no-hitter into the sixth ... I feel like it’s a full life’s circle for me right here.”
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