By Trey Mongrue
Every closing pitcher that is worth his salt has it.
That innate ability to walk on to the mound amidst a ninth inning lead, pick up the baseball and come with the belief that, no matter the circumstance or scenario, he will always win the battle between him and the opposing hitter to finish the game.
The “bulldog” mentality, as LSU redshirt freshman Jesse Stallings calls it.
Many a pitcher at LSU has had that certain something throughout the years and it has often paid coach Paul Mainieri in spades. Last Friday on a chilly Opening Night at Alex Box Stadium/Skip Bertman Field against Kansas, Stallings saw his chance to show his grit on the hill.
“I can kind of get into that crazy mindset,” Stallings said of being a closer. “When I go out on the mound, I know that I want to work fast and pound the zones because you want to get in there and get the outs as fast as you can.
“It’s the bulldog demeanor of going out there and getting after it.”
Making his LSU debut by being asked to hold on to a 4-1 lead in the ninth inning, Stallings quickly got ahead of Kansas’ Michael Tinsley with two identical 93 mile-per-hour fastballs that he pumped in the zone for strikes.
Despite his three pitch arsenal that also includes a changeup and a curveball that he has only recently begun to trust, the right-handed Stallings went with his fastball again on the 0-2 pitch and Tinsley slapped it down the left field line for a lead off double.
“The whole time I’m wondering… ‘Am I ever going to be the same pitcher?’”
– LSU pitcher Jesse Stallings
– LSU pitcher Jesse Stallings
For most pitchers making their first collegiate appearance, giving up an extra base hit after getting ahead in the count could make for a hairy situation, especially with the tying run on deck.
But for Stallings, this type of adversity was nothing to freak out about. He waited two years to finally pitch at LSU and, like a bulldog, he wasn’t going to give in that easily.
“I told myself to just keep throwing strikes and they weren’t going to hit the ball,” Stallings recalled of an internal moment he had after the double. “I knew it would lead to a better ending.”
‘I Tore It’
Stallings’ long and winding journey to LSU began in earnest when he was the star junior pitcher at Grant High School. His body was maturing, his fastball was picking up in velocity and division one colleges were beginning to put him on their radar.
After a successful 2012 campaign that saw him post a 2.10 earned run average and 52 strikeouts in 38 innings of work at Grant, Stallings looked to build off of that success by pitching in a Perfect Game sponsored tournament in Houston with his travel ball team that summer.
It was a multi-day event that brought together some of the best baseball prospect that high schools from all across the country had to offer, as well as many college coaches – including LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn, who became a Stallings fan right away.
“Maturity is a great word to describe him,” Dunn said. “He was just so mentally strong.”
With the eyes of Dunn and many others intently watching from the stands, this was a then-17 year old Stallings’ opportunity to really solidify his future in baseball.
Unfortunately, just two pitches into his first appearance in the tournament, he felt a sharp pain in his right elbow. It was the type of pain that a pitcher never wants to succumb to, yet way too many do.
“I tore it,” Stallings said of the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow. “I knew it was torn and it hurt really bad. I ended up throwing 10 more pitches and when I got out of the inning, I told my coach that I can’t pitch anymore.”
He was referring to the rest of that particular game and tournament, but, naturally, the thoughts of possibly never pitching at a high level again did creep into the back of his mind.
“The whole time, I’m wondering if I’m ever going to throw as hard as I used to,” he recalled. “Am I ever going to be the same pitcher?”
Opting to hold off on Tommy John Surgery for the time being, Stallings tirelessly rehabbed his elbow for six months, but even then, he still found it impossible to pitch. Not wanting to miss out on his senior season at Grant, where he fit in the lineup as a designated hitter and occasional first baseman, the operation was postponed even further back.
But if he wanted to continue past a high school baseball diamond, Stallings knew that he eventually would need to go under the knife.
“I knew I had a future in baseball,” he recalled. “If I wanted to fulfill that, I had to get the surgery done.”
Stallings was set to undergo Tommy John Surgery in April of 2013, but a month before that was to take place, he was scheduled for a pre-operation meeting in Baton Rouge with Dr. Mark Fields.
While having not yet officially extended a scholarship offer, Mainieri and then-recruiting coordinator and hitting coach Javi Sanchez heard that Stallings was going to be in the area and they invited the young pitcher to the Tigers’ game that night against Nicholls State.
It was a comfortable 9-3 win for LSU that night, however Stallings doesn’t remember much of it. He was too nervous knowing that he would have to break his untimely medical news to Mainieri and Sanchez when he met with them after the game.
“I was in the stands thinking that I didn’t want this game to end,” Stallings laughed. “I told them every thing. I said that I was going to work hard to get better and when I get better, I’m going to come out here and show you that I can play here.
“I figured that they were done with me when I said that,” he continued. “I know that coaches want you to be straight forward with them because they are going to be straight-forward with you.”
As it turns out, Stallings was right about that second part.
“He’s a very honest young man,” Mainieri said of Stallings. “You could see that even when we first met him that he was raised the right way and I was very appreciative that he was up front with us.”
A few weeks later, Stallings learned that his honesty paid off in the form of a voice mail that he received during his trigonometry class at Grant.
“It was from Javi and I was like ‘Ooh man, I need to listen to this,’” Stallings recalled. “So I just kind of snuck the phone to my head and listened to it and as soon as I got out of class, I called him back.”
Sanchez’ message was that he wanted Stallings to make another visit to LSU and that he had some “exciting news” – an open roster spot.
“I still have that message on my phone.”
On the Shelf
Three months after the reconstructive surgery on his right elbow, Stallings enrolled at LSU and began participating in fall practice with the baseball team. The operation kept him from picking up and throwing a baseball for a year, but he was still present at every practice. That didn’t change for the following January when the team reconvened for preseason practice and scrimmages.
But even though he was on the team, he wasn’t on the active roster and when LSU opened its 2014 season against the University of New Orleans, Stallings was not watching from the dugout. Instead, he was in the Alex Box Stadium stands as nothing more than a glorified fan.
“It felt weird,” he remembered. “Sitting out there and not in the dugout, I was like ‘wow, this hurts.’”
Not only did that make him feel like he wasn’t really part of the team, but seeing the likes of Aaron Nola and Joe Broussard on the mound only got his dormant pitching juices flowing, despite still being in the early stages of recovery.
“We’re going to give him the shot to be that guy, I have as much belief in Jesse as anybody else.”
– LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri on Stallings
– LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri on Stallings
“After that first game, I realized that I couldn’t watch any more games from there,” he said. “I just started watching the rest of the games on TV.”
In this day and age, Tommy John Surgery has become quite common among pitchers at the high school and college level. But that doesn’t mean that the toll it takes on the player’s that undergo it is lessening.
Besides missing out on a full season’s worth of games, the rehabilitation process is grueling. In Stallings’ case, the time off challenged him both mentally and physically.
“They say it’s routine, and the procedure is, but the whole time you are just thinking that it’s a long time before you get to pitch again,” he explained. “And during that time, there are just so many different things that can get in your way.”
Mainieri has seen it all too often. Besides Stallings, the LSU coach has seen four other pitchers receive the operation since 2010.
“These kids literally have to learn how to throw a baseball again,” Mainieri said. “It’s an awful thing to watch. The ones who are most dedicated in the rehab are the ones that end up having the most success.”
Road to Recovery
Taking heed to Mainieri’s words and his own instilled work ethic, Stallings continued to work his elbow back into pitching shape, no matter how hard it seemed at times.
By the summer of 2014, he was ready to try it out.
Heading west on I-10 towards Lafayette, Stallings joined the Acadiana Cane Cutters, a summer team in the Texas Collegiate League. On May 30, in a home game against the Brazos Valley Bombers, Stallings – having not pitched in a game since 2012 – was scheduled to start on the mound for the Cane Cutters.
“That was my first time on a mound in a while,” said Stallings. “I wasn’t real sure at the moment.”
Statistically speaking, the outing was not anything to write home about. Stallings did not make it out of the second inning and gave up three runs on two hits, two walks and no strikeouts. Spiritually speaking, though, it may have been the best outing of his career.
He was a pitcher again.
“I remember before the surgery, I had that bulldog mentality,” explained Stallings. “Not being able to play for so long, I felt like the game changed. I was so used to watching instead of playing but when I got to the summer league, the more I pitched, the more confidence I got back.”
After that first outing, Stallings immediately sent a paragraph-long text message to Dunn, detailing everything that he did well and the things he still needed to work on. The LSU pitching coach could not have been happier.
“I was really not concerned what his results were, all I wanted him to do was to get some innings,” Dunn said. “I wanted him to evaluate what he saw. That’s just the kind of kid he is.”
As his innings total with the Cane Cutters grew, Stallings saw more things falling back into place and that continued through the fall with LSU. By the time the preseason practices rolled around last January, Stallings’ fastball velocity was consistently sitting between 92-94mph and his control was back.
After a couple of outings in the recent scrimmages showed Mainieri a glimpse of the kid that they had recruited two years prior, the idea of making Stallings the Tigers’ next closer quickly materialized.
“We’ve got him slotted in there and we’re going to give him the shot to be that guy,” Mainieri said. “I have as much belief in Jesse as anybody else.”
In preparing for the 2015 season, Stallings never actively set a goal to become the next shutdown closer for LSU. He just came in hoping that he would be able to do enough to warrant a consistent share of innings, whether that was in a starting capacity or in relief.
Yet there he was, bulldog mentality and all, toeing the rubber Friday night in a save situation for the Tigers’ first game of the season.
Giving up that lead off double to Tinsley in the ninth, Stallings dealt with the dilemma almost as spectacularly as he has dealt with the process just to get back to the mound – by fanning the next three batters he faced to record his first career save and lock down an LSU victory.
“It felt great,” he said afterwards. “I wouldn’t have had it go any other way.”