DETROIT -- In the seventh inning Saturday night, the A's first playoff game in six years became something far more than a playoff game. It became a release. An emotional gantlet. An inspirational human moment.
Pat Neshek received a call in the bullpen.
Three days earlier, the A's relief pitcher had received another call at his home in Florida, this one from his wife, Stephanee.
"The baby has stopped breathing," she told him.
The couple's newborn son, Gehrig John Neshek, had died at the hospital. He was only 23 hours old. Cause of death unknown. The couple mourned, wept, held each other, cried some more. But after sitting on their couch for two days and feeling overwhelmed, they decided it would be better to fly here and try to think about something else.
And so Neshek walked into the A's locker room Friday and said he was ready to pitch. Bob Melvin, the A's manager, chose to bring him into Saturday's game at a crucial juncture, with two Detroit runners on base with one out and the Tigers trying to increase their 3-1 lead.
Neshek trotted out of the bullpen and took the ball from Melvin.
"You could just see the emotion in his eyes," said the A's catcher, Derek Norris, of that moment. "You could see how much it meant to him. I didn't say anything to him out there other than the usual. I didn't want to do anything to throw him off his routine."
With two inherited runners on, Neshek stared in at home plate.
The A's would go on to lose the game by that same 3-1 score, but by then Neshek had showered and was still trying to process what had happened.
"It was definitely tough," he said of the evening and of Gehrig's memory. "I was thinking about him the whole time, too. I kind of just grabbed the ball and threw it. Yesterday, I said, you go to the baseball field and don't really think about anything else. But that wasn't true tonight. It's probably a cliché. But I felt like somebody was looking down on me."
Then his brain shifted for just a second back into baseball mode, talking about the pitch he used to whiff Jackson.
"That's probably the best slider I've had all year," he said, trying to smile.
Real life always seeps into the world of professional sports. But seldom in such brutally sad a fashion as this. The fact that Neshek wanted to pitch under such circumstances is remarkable. The fact that he performed so effectively was ... well, his teammates called it inspirational. But that somehow seemed inadequate.
"We all know his little one was out there with him on the mound," said right fielder Josh Reddick. "I've got to credit the guy. If it happened to me, I don't know if I can even be sleeping tonight."
Melvin, the manager, said he had never once considered keeping Neshek off the playoff roster or refraining from using him.
"We wanted to try and get him into a game sooner rather than later," Melvin said. "I don't know that there's any great time to try to potentially get him a soft landing in the playoffs ... He came in and did a great job. Not
Not that things will ever be totally normal again for Neshek. He's old enough to know that. He is 32 years old, has knocked around the major and minor leagues without becoming a star, surviving elbow surgery, enduring good moments and bad. The A's are his fourth organization. His contract was purchased by the team in August from the Baltimore Orioles.
Stephanee has been with him on the entire journey, which makes this week almost indescribably sad for them both.
"It's been tough on me," Neshek said. "I can't imagine the sacrifices for her, what it's been for her, the whole time. She's a big baseball fan. She really wanted to ... "
Here he paused, collecting himself.
"Excuse me ... she really wanted Gehrig to see me pitch, that's what I meant," Neshek said. "Hopefully, we can have another couple of kids ... You just try to get back to normal. We sat in the house the first day and second day ... I don't know if we could have made it through the third day."
He paused again.
"I felt like a shell," Neshek said. "We've received so many emails and tweets of support, though. It's really helped. We're grateful. But ..."
But how would anyone who hasn't endured their pain know what it's like, really? Gehrig was named, of course, for the late Yankees slugger Lou Gehrig. Pat's and Stephanee's families both thought that was pretty neat, because they are baseball families. This is why Stephanee made arrangements for Pat's parents in Florida to watch the couples' three dogs, then gathered up Stephanee's parents and flew to Detroit. They rented a car and drove to the A's hotel.
On that ride, Pat received a phone call from A's executive David Forst. Pat has known most of his teammates for only a few months, so he wasn't sure how they would react when he showed up. Forst told him.
"David said the team had met," Neshek said. "He was asking my permission for the team to put a patch on their uniforms in honor of our son. I broke down in front of everybody."
Pat was also moved, he said, that when the bullpen phone rang and he began to warm up, a few Tigers' fans in the seats above yelled out encouraging words, telling him they appreciated him being there.
"I feel comfort in baseball," Neshek said. "I feel normal. I don't know what I would do if that were taken away from me."
Just before he left the locker room, though someone wondered how Neshek would remember this evening, many years from now.
"I don't know," he said. "I would have liked to have won, I guess. But I don't think I'll ever forget it. I don't know what else to say."
He turned and looked back at the clothes in his locker before leaving the room. His uniform jersey was hanging with the "GJN" patch on the shoulder, facing outward, so he could see it.
"He was only around for a day," Neshek said. "It's pretty special."