Hopkinton's Nelson learning ropes of pitching under scouts’ watchful eyes
Hopkinton's Jake Nelson Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
Hopkinton's Jake Nelson runs to third base during the game against Bishop Brady at Hopkinton on Monday, April 14, 2014. Hopkinton won 6-1.
(ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
There’s pressure. And there’s what Jake Nelson deals with when he takes the mound.
The senior is the No. 1 pitcher for the Hopkinton baseball team, and before April he hadn’t thrown a full inning in high school. He’s got the Hawks’ playoff hopes riding on his right arm. And each pitch he throws is under the careful supervision of scouts from baseball’s highest levels.
It’s a lot to ask. But when you throw comfortably in the high 80s and reach the mid 90s, ready or not, you turn heads.
“It’s taken a little while to sink in,” said Nelson, who has drawn interest from major league teams and Division I colleges. “I’m just trying to stay humble about this, stay within myself. … It’s a long and drawn-out process and I’m trying not to get too wrapped up in it.”
There are two dimensions to Nelson this spring. On one hand, he’s an out-of-nowhere prodigy, throwing a blistering fastball he didn’t even know he had, which has put him in
line for a future he could never have expected.
On the other, he’s a project, taking a crash course in pitching while also trying to help the Hawks embark on a deep playoff run.
“It gets a little nerve-wracking at times,” said Nelson, who’s 2-1 with 24 strikeouts in 16 innings. “Thinking about all the different aspects of pitching, not just trying to throw strikes, but having to hold runners on and think about where I’m putting the ball and ‘What did this guy do last time’ and ‘What adjustments do I have to make?’ There’s a lot more to it than you’d think.”
Nelson, at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, was planning on a future in the game. Just not on the mound. A second-team All-State catcher as a junior, Nelson got invited to a showcase at UConn in August and heard that secondary pitchers were allowed to throw a bullpen session after a game. With only two-thirds of an inning of pitching experience but plenty of time that day to kill, Nelson decided to give it a shot – and made it only one pitch in.
“I hit 88 with the first pitch and (UConn assistant) Coach (Joshua) McDonald was like ‘Okay, we’re going to shut you down for the night so you can throw in the game tomorrow,’ ” Nelson said.
Nelson pitched the next day, retired all five batters he faced, and Coach Jim Penders had a message for him.
“ ‘He said ‘You hit 91 today,’ ” Nelson said. “And I actually laughed in his face.”
From that point on, the career catcher was a pitcher. Nelson worked with pitching coach Matt Blake, and Matt Hyde, an area scout for the Yankees, arranged for him to pitch in a showcase in Jupiter, Fla., where Nelson was clocked at 93 mph.
Nelson soon after shut himself down for a few months, but the buzz was just getting started. Approximately half of the teams in Major League Baseball have called with interest, and Nelson also has been watched by Clemson and North Carolina, he’ll be seen by Vanderbilt and Virginia, and he has scholarship offers from Georgia Tech and Duke. According to PerfectGame.org, he’s the 33rd-ranked right-handed pitching prospect in the 2015 class for the country, and the top-ranked player in the state.
There’s plenty to deal with – both for the pitcher, who’s buying himself decision time by playing a post-graduate year at Phillips Academy, and for his coach, who now has more than the Hawks’ record on his agenda.
“The only pressure I’m under,” Coach Dave Chase said, “are the phone calls and emails I get from people wondering when he’s going to pitch.
“Everybody wants to know when he’s going to throw two weeks from now,” he said, laughing. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know!’ ”
Surrounded by hype and attention, Nelson has had to educate himself on the finer aspects of pitching. He said his catching experience has given him a significant head start in knowing how to attack hitters, but he’s worked at adding a slider and changeup to his repertoire, and he only needs to look at his own success at the plate to know there are hitters in Division III who can catch up to low-90s heat.
“These are all new things for him, how to manage the game, whether to blow it by somebody or whether to finesse somebody,” Chase said. “Being able to trust teammates and pitch to contact sometimes is more important than going up and trying to strike everybody out.”
There’s also the issue of protecting the prized right arm, which Chase and Nelson agree is a priority, while still understanding there are games to win in front of those scouts and radar guns.
“I’m going to do as much as I can to help the team win,” said Nelson, the team’s catcher when he doesn’t pitch, “whether that’s at the plate or behind the plate or pitching.”
There were hurdles to overcome for the Belmont girls’ lacrosse team, a first-year varsity program trying to find its way in the NHIAA.
But with a victory five games in, team manager Marta Robbins said the team is gaining confidence by the game.
“To go (against) Merrimack Valley (April 29) and win that first varsity game, it was a huge win for the girls,” she said. “It prepared them (for the rest of the season).”
It was difficult to know what to expect entering this season, as Belmont (1-4) got the go-ahead to become a varsity team after two years as a club squad. Despite starting with only two players – then-freshmen forward Kaitlyn Berry and goalie Alexa Robbins – who had lacrosse experience, the Red Raiders went 9-3 their first season and 7-3 their second, all while supporting themselves through fundraisers and volunteer help.
Thanks to its success, the team gained varsity status, and found out the school would pay for busses and officials. There was enough money left over for uniforms, and with the roster up to 21 players, 17 of whom at least played for the club team, the Red Raiders began their first official varsity season.
“The girls were just super excited about the sport. It was easy to motivate them,” Marta Robbins said. “This year, having the varsity status is really exciting.”
The early going wasn’t easy. Belmont lost its first three games, the last of which was a difficult 17-2 defeat to Derryfield that prompted a message from the staff.
“I think we had some discouragement at the end of that game,” Marta Robbins said. “But we talked to the girls, brought them in for a Sunday practice, hit the gym for two, two-and-a-half hours and said, ‘You can do this.’ ”
The players responded, beating the Pride, 13-12, for their first victory. Now the team, led by captains Berry, Emily Ennis and Zoe Zeller and scorer Allivia Burbank, is feeling optimism going forward, that there are more wins to come.
“I think (the win) energized them. … I think they know what they’re capable of,” Marta Robbins said. “You’ve got to lose to win. If you don’t know what you’re doing wrong, how are you going to get better?”
Wednesday will feature several big baseball games around the area. In Division II, Coe-Brown (4-2) will visit Merrimack Valley (3-3). In Division III, Hopkinton (4-1) travels to neighboring rival Bow (3-2). And in Division IV, the last two state champions meet as Sunapee (3-1) visits Pittsfield (6-1). The Division II and IV games are at 4 p.m., and the Hawks and Falcons will play at 4:15.
(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @dbonifant.)