JAKE NELSON is playing college baseball in Texas, and he took a circuitous route to get there.
Even if you’re familiar with Nelson, a right-handed pitcher, you probably lost track of him shortly after he graduated from Hopkinton High School in 2014. His story is a good one.
Nelson, 22, spent a year at Phillips Andover (Mass.) Academy, and then played college baseball at the University of Pennsylvania. He shared the Ivy League lead in saves with five as a freshman in 2016, when he went 1-1 with a 3.12 ERA. His sophomore season was cut short by shoulder inflammation, but he posted a 2.25 ERA and three saves in 16 innings.
Labrum surgery prevented him from playing at Penn as a junior, but he received a medical redshirt. He graduated from Penn early (in December) with the intent to transfer, and landed at Texas A&M in January. He pitched a scoreless inning of relief in Saturday’s victory over Fordham, which was his first appearance with the Aggies.
“They heard I was looking around and they had room to fill a spot,” Nelson said. “I went on an official visit and they offered me a spot on the team and a spot in the business school as well. After I came down here it was an easy decision. I knew this is where I wanted to go.
“My arm already feels better in the warm weather. I was up to 95 (mph) in a couple of preseason outings this spring. I was happy I was able to get my velo (velocity) back up after the surgery. It’s not like Tommy John surgery where guys come back stronger. They don’t know as much about the shoulder, I guess.”
Nelson was a sophomore catcher on the Hopkinton team that won the NHIAA Division III championship in 2012. He became a pitcher by accident. Here’s how it happened:
Before his senior season at Hopkinton, Nelson attended a two-day showcase at the University of Connecticut hoping his catching skills would attract the interest of some Division I schools. Although he hadn’t pitched with any regularity since eighth grade, Nelson jumped at the opportunity when UConn pitching coach Josh MacDonald offered him a chance to throw a bullpen session at the end of Day 1 — a bullpen session that ended after his first delivery.
That’s when a pitcher was born.
“I did it because I really had nothing else to do,” Nelson told the Union Leader in 2014. “It was either that or head back to my hotel room.
“I threw one pitch and they shut me down for the night. Coach MacDonald said, ‘Are you sure you don’t pitch? Are you sure you don’t pitch at all?’ They told me I was going to be pitching the next day.”
Nelson hit 91 mph on the radar gun the following afternoon. Several weeks later, he was clocked at 93 mph during the Perfect Game WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla. Scholarship offers began to pour in shortly thereafter.
Nelson has an Ivy League degree, now he’s playing in the SEC — perhaps the best baseball conference in the country.
Texas A&M competes in the SEC’s Western Division, which includes LSU, Mississippi, Arkansas, Auburn, Mississippi State and Alabama. Nelson said he expects to be used in short relief this season.
“Hopefully I’ll be used towards the back of the bullpen,” he said. “Hoping to be a late-in-the-game guy.
“I got great rehab and I feel great. My arm is strong and I feel confident that my arm is going to hold up during the season.”
The Detroit Tigers selected Nelson in the 33rd round of the 2017 draft, but he elected to remain in school. He’s draft-eligible again this year, but, since he played only two years at Penn, Nelson will be eligible to pitch for Texas A&M in 2020 as well. He may have a decision to make in June.
“It’s always a matter of where you’re drafted,” Nelson said. “We’ll have to see how the season goes, I guess.”