FORT MYERS, Fla. — Joe Nelson won the last game ever played at Shea Stadium. He received a World Series ring for pitching just three games with the Boston Red Sox.

The reliever’s other career milestones are less joyous: four serious surgeries, seven major league organizations and too many grueling days of rehabilitation for him to count.

Now Nelson faces another challenge. He’s one of about a half-dozen pitchers competing for the lone vacancy in Boston’s bullpen, a hurdle his history of dealing with adversity may help him overcome.

“I thrive in situations like that,” the right-hander said Sunday. “I love the game. I’m 35 and I still get to play a game I’ve been playing since I was 4 years old. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.”

That passion has kept him going through all the trips to operating rooms and new clubhouses.

Nelson had Tommy John surgery in 1999. Operations on his right labrum, a cuff of cartilage that stabilizes the shoulder, followed in 2001, 2002 and 2007. He missed almost four full seasons.

And he’s been with nearly twice as many organizations. After six seasons in the Atlanta system, he moved to Boston, the New York Mets, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Kansas City, Florida and Tampa Bay again.

And now, back to Boston.

“My wife and family have always said, ‘play as long as you want, as long as you’re able to, but once you quit, you’re done. You’re not going to (go) back,’” Nelson said. “I had a lot of nights where I said, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work out.’ I called my friends and they’d be like, ‘Don’t quit. Nine-to-5 gigs are not as fun as they’re cracked up to be.’ “

He gains confidence from the success he’s had when healthy.

Since his last surgery sidelined him for all of 2007, he went 3-1 with a 2.00 ERA in 59 appearances for Florida in 2008 and 3-0 with a 4.02 ERA in 42 games for Tampa Bay in 2009.

Nelson’s brief stint with the Red Sox in 2004 was far less productive. He was promoted from Triple-A Pawtucket on July 9 and sent back there 12 days later after posting a 16.88 ERA in 22/3 innings.

But, just like Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez, he received a World Series ring.

“It’s a prized possession,” Nelson said. “I wasn’t on the postseason roster and I only threw in a few games, but I was a part of that team and they can look in the books if they want to and go, ‘yeah, he actually did pitch.’“

“He’s shown a lot of perseverance, both from a physical standpoint and what’s he’s come back from and never being a guy who was guaranteed anything,” Boston pitching coach John Farrell said. “We’re looking for that second lefty in the bullpen or a right-hander that can attack left-handers efficiently. He’s going to get a long look here in camp.”


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