It’s amazing what a little surgery can do.
University of West Florida pitcher Jake Stephens had a solid season for the Argonauts during his 2012 junior campaign. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound former Lassiter standout led the team with three complete games in 13 starts, posted a 3.44 earned-run average with a 6-3 record and struck out 62 batters in 70.2 innings of work.
Unfortunately, at the end of the season, Stephens started having problems with his right throwing arm, so he decided to have surgery to clean out some loose impediments.
“I was just laboring along at the end of last season,” Stephens said. “The doctors didn’t find anything structurally wrong, so they just fixed some things and cleaned out my shoulder and elbow and then I went into rehab.
“I missed the fall practice season with the rehab and (the coaching staff) slowly worked me back into the rotation during the spring.”
Stephens didn’t pitch in the beginning of the spring, but he eventually saw some time as a reliever when the coaching staff thought he was ready. He finally cracked the starting rotation again one month later, and the results were more than he could imagine.
“It was the best I ever felt,” Stephens said. “So, the doctors fixed whatever was wrong with me and the rehab gave me a big boost going into my final season. It was worth the wait because I was excited to get back to throwing.”
Stephens completed his senior season for West Florida with an 8-1 record and 1.63 ERA. At one point, he pitched 26 straight scoreless innings over a four-start span, and he had a 2.16 ERA with one complete game in three postseason starts. He recorded a complete game victory over Tampa on the final day of the NCAA South Regional on two days rest, forcing a winner-take-all game in the double elimination tournament.
“I didn’t even realize I had the 26-inning streak until someone mentioned it around my fourth or fifth start,” Stephens said. “Having something like that was a good way to go out (his senior year).”
Although West Florida concluded its season with a 39-14 record, falling one win shy of a trip to the NCAA Championship, Stephens continued to receive postseason honors on top of the other awards he had already earned.
Selected as the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and Daktronics South Region Pitcher of the Year and the Gulf South Conference Pitcher of the Year, Stephens was awarded two All-America nods for the 2013 season. He made the NCBWA All-America third team and was a Daktronics All-America honorable mention honoree.
“That’s just crazy,” Stephens said. “I really wasn’t expecting to be an All-American, especially after having the surgery. I didn’t know I had gotten the awards until the guys started congratulating me at practice and they told me what it was about.
“Considering what I went through with the surgery and the rehab, it’s just really amazing how my season went.”
Head coach Mike Jeffcoat, who is also the team’s pitching coach, was really excited for the season Stephens had.
“He bounced back pretty well from that elbow and shoulder surgery,” Jeffcoat said. “After rehab, we pitched him out of the pen early in the season and around mid-to-early March he was back in the rotation. He was great all year. He pitched well in some big games and was great for us down the stretch.
“Jake really worked his tail off. He has a great work ethic and he’s a real team player. He has a great attitude. He’s a laid back kid, but is as fierce as anybody and is a competitor on the mound. I hope he gets picked up as a free agent.”
Stephens is hoping for that too. After a two-year career at West Florida where he combined to go 14-4 with a 2.55 ERA with six complete games and two saves, Stephens is ready to take his experience to the next level.
“I don’t have an agent yet, but four to five teams have contacted me and my coaches,” he said. “I had a workout with the (New York) Mets before the draft, but teams are waiting until after the College World Series before they decide on guys that they want to pick up.
“Some of the college players will stay in school and some will sign, so there’s just a waiting period right now. In the meantime, I’m going to keep working to get better.”
Stephens’ pitching repertoire has grown to three after he improved his change-up to go with his curve ball and fastball. The sports management major hopes he gets the chance to continue his career.
“I’m super excited to compete at the next level,” he said. “That’s the goal and I want the opportunity.”