The minors tested Jimmy Nelson, but maybe not on the field. He was an ace in Class AAA, just named the pitcher of the year, in fact.
For someone who is disciplined, hardworking and mild-mannered, the hassles of traveling from Nashville to Reno or Omaha or Albuquerque in the Pacific Coast League tested Nelson's mental mettle.
Shuttles that arrived 90 minutes after requested. Night games followed by early wake-up calls, followed by commercial flights, followed by another night game. Nelson's Twitter page is dotted with little observations of the maddening life on the road less traveled.
But when the whole team crammed on to a jet and there wasn't an emergency row seat -- with a few inches more leg room -- to be had, Nelson simply scrunched his 6-foot-6 frame into his chair and forced himself to focus on his future.
"We had a strength coach that was about 5-foot-6 that always snagged that emergency row," Nelson said. "But the thing is, it's the stuff like that that I will never forget.
"That's the grind. And this is the reward."
That explains why, in taking the mound as a starter for the Milwaukee Brewers, a team atop the National League Central standings, Nelson can stretch out and feel completely comfortable in the big leagues.
Nelson's role could change with the expected return of Matt Garza from the disabled list in a week or so, but even if he spends the rest of the year in the bullpen, this is shaping up to be an unforgettable season for the 25-year-old. And the Brewers have learned they can count on their rookie in a pennant race.
It helps that they've been getting good reports on him since they drafted him in the second round in 2010.
"He's got good makeup," manager Ron Roenicke said. "All the minor-league people told us he is a guy who will be aggressive, who won't shy away from things -- and that's probably what you worry about more than anything with a young guy.
"But he's shown that's who he is."
He is, quite simply, a hard worker from Niceville, Fla.
"I can't tell you how many times people have asked, 'Oh, is it nice there?'" said Nelson, shaking his head.
It is a good little town, next to Destin in the Florida Panhandle, close to the beaches, and a hotbed of baseball and football talent.
In the Nelson home, there's a picture of Jimmy in a Brewers youth baseball uniform at the age of 6. His parents, both former college athletes -- his father, Jim, played football and ran track at Florida, and his mother, Deborah, played basketball at Florida State -- supported his passion, so that meant baseball year-round by the time Jimmy was 10.
At Alabama, Nelson played on good teams, especially his junior year in 2010 when the Crimson Tide compiled a 42-25 record and were Atlanta regional champions in the NCAA tournament. In college, he developed good habits and became known for his relentless off-season workouts.
In the minor leagues, Nelson pitched 88 games before making his Brewers and major-league debut on Sept. 6, 2013. At Class AAA Nashville this season before being called up the Brewers in July, Nelson went 10-2 with a 1.46 earned run average and .092 WHIP while striking out 114 in 111 innings.
"I've always said we have a lot of talent in our system," Nelson said. "Sometimes we're overlooked a little bit."
But the circumstances have changed a lot from when Nelson was called up at the tail end of last season and started one game, with the Brewers going nowhere.
Now they're in a pennant race. And Nelson is in the thick of it.
"Since we're in a race, it's a lot more serious," Nelson said. "You go out there and you've got to be locked in, every outing. Every pitch. You can't take a pitch off. Sometimes than can kind of slip your mind a little bit with the long seasons, but it is part of that mental toughness that you've got to have.
"It's about winning here. It's about results. You've got to stick to your process whether you're doing good or whether you're struggling a little bit."
That's required a mental toughness, and that has distinguished Nelson already in the eyes of his coaches and fellow players. In his short time in Milwaukee, Nelson has won over the locker room.
"You can't say enough about him working hard," catcher Jonathan Lucroy said. "It's nice to see in a younger player.
"He's made some mistakes, but honestly every game he's pitched, he's given us a chance to win. A chance to score. He's kept us within two or three runs every single time, and that's all you can really ask for. Especially in a younger player, just coming up and all, in a big-time part of the year on a first-place team.
"I mean, he's not going to be perfect every time, but really I think he's improved every time he's gone up."
In nine starts this season, Nelson has a 2-5 record with a 4.10 ERA. He has struck out 45 and walked 15 batters in 52 innings.
Still, Roenicke expresses confidence in the rookie.
"He can get wild a little bit, at times, but he's got good stuff, so even when he misses with location, he usually gets away with it," Roenicke said. "I've seen enough of him that even in a pennant race, I think he's really going to concentrate on that game and not worry about where we are in circumstances and who we're playing.
"He's been matched up with some very tough pitchers, and I don't think that affects him much."
In fact, the one thing Nelson has had to work on is toning everything down, from his warrior workouts to his perfectionism. But he still has the mental toughness, and that will help him the rest of the season.
"You've got to control your emotions, and you can't let one bad start affect your work in between starts," Nelson said. "You can chew on it and spit it out -- that night -- but you've got to figure out some way to either get it out of your mind, or learn from it.
"But I think that toughness is when you start getting tired, when you start hitting that wall, I get over that wall -- instead of just quitting. That really comes in to play late in the season, like now. You can't just mentally fold. You've got to fight through it."
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