Here's how one pitch altered the direction of Jake Nelson’s life.
Ten months ago, Nelson was hoping he could earn a spot on the roster of a lower-level Division I college baseball team. Now he’s receiving interest from some of the top programs in the country, and could be selected in next month’s Major League Baseball Draft.
Everything changed because of that one pitch.
Nelson, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound senior at Hopkinton High School, attended a baseball camp at the University of Connecticut last August. He went to the camp as a catcher, his primary position since his freshman season at Hopkinton.
After the camp’s first day, the UConn coaching staff invited any pitcher who didn’t pitch that day to stay late and throw in the bullpen. Although he hadn’t pitched regularly since eighth grade, Nelson mulled his options and decided that he was in no hurry to head back to his hotel room.
“I threw one pitch and they shut me down for the night,” Nelson explained. “Coach MacDonald (UConn assistant coach Josh 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, who throws right-handed, 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. Things have taken off from there.
Nelson has spurned scholarship offers from Boston College, Northeastern, Bryant, St. John’s and Hartford. He currently holds offers from Duke and Georgia Tech, and is receiving significant interest from Vanderbilt, Clemson, North Carolina and Virginia. He took an official visit to Vanderbilt last month.
Coaches from Georgia Tech and Duke were in attendance Monday, when Nelson pitched against Campbell of Litchfield.
“Everything has totally come out of nowhere,” Nelson said. “My entire intention of going down to UConn was to play baseball on the last weekend of the summer. I was just hoping not to embarrass myself when I pitched (at UConn) the next day.”
There is also the possibility of a pro career. Nelson, who also plays varsity basketball for Hopkinton, said he has filled out paperwork for “about half” of the teams in Major League Baseball.
“(As a catcher) there were real questions about how good of a hitter he would be,” said an American League scout who spoke under the condition that neither he nor the organization he works for be identified. “Going in that direction, his options were not that great. He’s a good athlete and he’s got arm strength. He’s just learning how to pitch right now.
“He’s in a great position. (Pitching) presented opportunities that wouldn’t have been there a year ago.”
Nelson, 17, said he will attend prep school at Phillips Andover (Mass.) Academy in the fall, when he will reclassify to the Class of 2015. He will be eligible for next year’s MLB draft as well.
Perfect Game, which bills itself as the world’s largest scouting service, projects that Nelson will be taken in rounds 11 through 25 in this year’s draft, and in rounds four through 10 if he’s drafted next year.
“I would say (turning professional) this year is far fetched,” said Nelson’s father, Tim. “I don’t think he’ll go anywhere near high enough in the draft to change his goal of playing in college. Prep school is another year of maturity. He’ll get bigger, stronger.”
Nelson entered this year having pitched two-thirds of an inning during his high school career. That came in a mop-up role during his freshman season.
“He always threw the ball back to the pitchers harder than they threw it to him, but I knew his plan was to play in college as a catcher,” Hopkinton coach Dave Chase said. “I guess I had given up on the thought that he was going to pitch because I didn’t want to jeopardize his future as a catcher.
“His mechanics have gotten better, but he’s a catcher who’s pitching right now.”
In three starts (16 innings), Nelson is 2-1 with 29 strikeouts. He has allowed seven runs, but only one earned.
Nelson, who catches for Hopkinton High when he doesn’t pitch, hits third in the order and is batting .350 with three doubles and a triple. He has four runs batted in for the Hawks, who are 3-1.
Nelson has spent the last two summers playing for the New England Ruffnecks, a Massachusetts-based elite travel team. He plans to play for the Ruffnecks this summer as well.
Nelson currently complements his fastball with a slider and a changeup.
“I’m getting more confident in each of those pitches every time I go out,” he said. “No matter how hard you throw they can always catch up to you.
“Getting drafted would be exciting, but right now I’m trying to figure out where the best fit for me is in terms of college. I’m in such a good spot right now. I don’t think I have any bad choices.”
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TWO of the top softball pitchers in the state will be on the same field today when Timberlane Regional of Plaistow faces Manchester Central at Timberlane High (4 p.m.).
Senior Sarah Lavallee has been Central’s No. 1 pitcher since her freshman season. Sophomore Kate Hoadley has a 5-0 record this season and is one of the main reasons Timberlane won last year’s Division I title.
“(Lavallee) is definitely either the No. 1 or No. 2 pitcher in the division,” Timberlane coach Jim Clavette said. “I think she’s No. 1.
“The mental part of Kate’s game is very good. Nothing bothers her.”
Central enters the game with a (5-2) record. Timberlane, which beat Concord in last year’s title game, is 7-0 and hasn’t given up a run in its last four games. The Owls have surrendered seven runs overall.
“It’s going to be who makes the least amount of mistakes in the field,” Clavette said. “If either pitcher gets good defense, she’s going to be tough to beat. I tell my kids that you have to make the other team earn their runs.”
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THE most attractive game on today’s high school baseball menu is Dover (6-0) at Londonderry (6-1). Dover is the only unbeaten team remaining in Division I. Londonderry is alone in second place.
Londonderry coach Brent Demas said Franklin Pierce University-bound pitcher Tom Corey will start on the mound for the Lancers. Corey is 1-0 with a 0.58 ERA, and has 13 strikeouts in 12 innings.
Dover’s pitching staff has limited the team’s six opponents to 10 runs. Five of those came in a 12-5 triumph over Trinity of Manchester. Four teams have failed to score more than one run against the Green Wave.
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MONDAY was a tough day for hitters from Winnacunnet of Hampton. Josh Gagne tossed a no-hitter to help the Spaulding of Rochester baseball team defeat Winnacunnet 3-0; and Sami West pitched a complete-game and held Winnacunnet to two hits in the Spaulding softball team’s 6-1 triumph. ... Senior Courtney Fisher became the first ConVal of Peterborough player to record at least 600 strikeouts when she struck out 11 in a 12-0 victory over Trinity on April 23. … The Wilton-Lyndeborough softball team is 5-0 in Division IV and has outscored its last three opponents 45-0.
Email staff writer Roger Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @603Sportsmedia.