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Meek ready to rebound with the Bucs

Meek ready to rebound with the Bucs

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PITTSBURGH -- Evan Meek arrived at the Pirates' Spring Training facilities last year knowing that, as a recent Rule 5 Draft pick, one of two things was set to happen: he'd make the team out of camp and remain on the roster for the entire season, or he'd return to Tampa Bay, the club that left him available for the Pirates to select in the Rule 5 Draft.

As things turned out, Meek's path actually didn't follow either. The right-hander lasted one month with the Pirates before being taken off the 25-man roster. However, a deal was worked out between the Pirates and the Rays that enabled Pittsburgh to retain control of Meek.

So now, one year later, Meek finds himself preparing for the Pirates' big league camp all over again. But with the circumstances different and his own expectations more realistic, Meek will be arriving in Bradenton, Fla., with a comfort and confidence that should bode well in his attempt to earn a chance at making that much-desired return to the Majors.

"I just feel so much more relaxed," Meek said this week, just days after participating in the Rookie Career Development Program. "Last year, it was my first big league camp. It was awesome, but it was a lot to take in. Now, I'm going to be so much more prepared because I'm going to know what to expect."

While it will certainly be a bit of an uphill climb for Meek, 25, to make the Pirates' bullpen out of Spring Training, general manager Neal Huntington has listed him as a legitimate candidate to fill one of those final 'pen spots, which will likely be two or three in number.

And in talking with Meek, it becomes clear that the hard-throwing reliever needed to endure all that he went through in 2008 to get him to a place where his confidence is budding at the start of '09.

"I'm a big believer that things happen for a reason," Meek said. "I struggled for a reason."

Yes, those struggles included allowing two runs in all but one of his first six relief appearances with the Pirates last April. It included his oft-erratic control, evidenced by the 12 walks he allowed in only 13 big league innings. And it included having to swallow his pride and return to Double-A, even when Meek didn't agree with the demotion.

But Huntington and Kyle Stark, the Pirates' director of player development, had a plan for Meek last spring that could pay huge dividends very soon. Their goal was simple: rebuild the young right-hander's confidence.

It was no secret that Meek had the arm -- his velocity reached the mid-90s in his short stint with the Pirates -- but he didn't have the consistency. And he didn't have the mental fortitude yet to deal with the pressures of the big league environment.

"I was too worried about the results," Meek said. "I was too worried about what was going to happen instead of just pitching."

As a result, Huntington and Stark agreed that Meek needed to return to Double-A, a level where he had had success the year before. Meek adamantly disagreed, though, contending that he was ready for Triple-A. Management stayed firm on its recommendation, but ultimately Huntington gave Meek the choice.

Meek left that conversation, took a few days and weighed the options. He ultimately told Huntington he would join the Double-A Altoona bullpen.

"I thought about the fact that Neal had made a deal to keep me," Meek recalled. "He obviously believed in me. He stuck with me, and the Pirates stuck with me. That's what helped me make my decision.

"And everything worked out great," he continued. "They kept their promise, too. They said that when I got my velocity back and my control back, they'd move me up."

That was the beginning of a sort of renaissance for Meek. He made nine appearances with Altoona and limited the damage to five earned runs allowed in 16 innings. And the most critical stat: only three walks to 17 strikeouts during that span.

The success continued in Triple-A. Meek made a total of 23 appearances and finished with a 2.40 ERA. He limited hitters to a .196 average. He walked only 14.

"All it took was just confidence and belief that he could be successful at the Minor League level," Huntington said. "He became more consistent. He believed in his stuff. His velocity jumped. His consistency with his velocity jumped. He went down there and built on a season that had started off very rough."

Meek's season didn't end there. He also spent two months playing in Mexico this fall, and again, he left a strong impression to those who watched him pitch. His fastball was clocked at as high as 98 mph and sat consistently at 94. Huntington also relayed growth in Meek's delivery consistency.

It's that journey through 2008 that has Meek encouraged and confident with where he is now. He said that while he is obviously eyeing that Opening Day bullpen spot, just knowing that he'll still be in the organization if he doesn't get it also provides a peace of mind that he didn't have a year ago.

And more than anything, he's just thankful to be in the mix once again.

"Even though I didn't perform to my ability in the big leagues, I felt very fortunate that they believed in me and that they saw something," Meek said. "It made me work harder and perform even better and crack down on what happened up there.

"I really feel like all that development is where it needs to be now," he added. "I think going into Spring Training and not having any pressure on my shoulders is going to be a great thing."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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