Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Redemption stories are practically an American institution. Our youth grow up hearing the countries greatest tales of perseverance: Lincoln overcoming a losing senate campaign in 1858 to win the presidential election two years later, Edison taking more than 1,000 attempts to invent the lightbulb, Jordan going from once-cut sophomore to six-time NBA Champion. A "never give up" attitude is part of U.S. folklore, instilled in us by the media and the education system. Missouri Tigers reliever Jake Walsh must have paid close attention in class.
Walsh, a sophomore from Dallas, Texas, has become one of the great stories of the 2012 Missouri Tiger baseball team. Less than a year ago, Walsh was sitting in the stands of Taylor Stadium, watching his future teammates play the game he loved, doing whatever he could to stay close to the sport. Months earlier, he had been dealt the ultimate blow: the Missouri coaches decided his services were no longer needed on the team. He had been cut. His baseball career hung in the balance.
Jake Walsh has a lot going for him physically. He is a big kid, 6-3, close to 200 lbs., and he is left-handed. With the emphasis baseball puts on left-handed pitching and his size, it isn't hard to believe Walsh has become one of the key pieces of the Missouri bullpen, registering eight of the team's eleven saves. However, Walsh said his physical prowess wasn't always there.
"I didn't develop until real late actually," Walsh says. "I used to be the tall lanky kid that didn't really fill out his position well, and then I just worked out and got better from there."
Growing up in football-hotbed Texas, Walsh wasn't one of those baseball lifers devoting every ounce of athleticism to America's pastime. He and his brother, Logan, both played football; his brother went on to play at Ole Miss. But Walsh says baseball was always his No. 1, even if he did bounce between the varsity and junior varsity teams in high school. Walsh was good enough to make the varsity team at a young age, but he was sent down to junior varsity to get more pitching experience his junior year. There, Walsh had a defining moment.
"I threw a no-hitter," Walsh says. "It was pretty neat because that doesn't happen often. It's always an honor to do it."
Despite the no-hitter and the exposure he received by playing on Baseball America's No. 1 ranked baseball team, Walsh drew few Division I offers. He was, however, invited to Missouri's summer baseball camp. His strong play during the camp drew attention from the coaches.
"I was told I would have a preferred walk-on spot if I came," Walsh says. "It was a leap of faith, but I knew if this didn't work out, then it wasn't meant to be and I would still get an education."
Once he arrived in Columbia, he knew he had work to do. Walsh remembers throwing slower than the rest of the pitchers and being impressed at how good the team's hitters were. He decided to redshirt the 2010 season.
The next year, Walsh came back throwing harder, but he was inconsistent. Missouri Pitching Coach Matt Hobbs says Walsh was a competitor but lacked good stuff and had shaky command. The coaches let him go. His future with the team looked bleak.
"Most kids that get cut move on," Missouri Head Coach Tim Jamieson says. "If they get cut, it's probably better for them to either play at a different level or move on."
The only place Walsh moved was a few rows behind the dugout. He supported the Tigers; he became a cheerleader; he played on the university's club team. When the season was over, he asked for another chance. The coaching staff connected him to a team in Sedalia where he pitched with fellow Tiger Jeff Emens. Hobbs notes working out with Emens was a turning point. Walsh refused to let the moment pass him by.
"I knew this was going to be my last chance," Walsh says. "They gave me a second opportunity - that doesn't happen often - so I knew everyday I was going to have to work harder than everybody. I had to have a no regrets mentality."
He came back with stronger command of his fastball and a better breaking ball. He got stronger, making his delivery more consistent. Not only was he in position to make the team, he was ready to contribute.
"I think it's just determination more than anything," Hobbs says. "When you tell somebody they can't do something, you can go one of two ways with it: you can either let it beat you down or you can rise above it. Jake was determined to get better and become a contributor to the team."
Walsh doesn't get caught up in the moment. He says he keeps it simple; when he comes into games, his mentally is to not let the runner score. His minimalist approach has made Walsh the most used pitcher out of the bullpen this season (he leads the team with 22 appearances) just a calendar year after he was sitting in the stands.
Only a sophomore, Walsh has two more years to improve. If his performance makes another big jump, he could be one of the team's key pitchers next season.
"It's hard to say what he is going to do, because if you would have asked me this question last year, I would have thought you were crazy," Hobbs says. "Anyone that can go from not pitching at all for us to getting some saves, I think the sky is the limit for whatever that guy wants to do."
Walsh says he doesn't know what he wants to do yet; right now, he is focusing on winning a Big 12 Championship and going fishing with his roommate. But he isn't about to put limitations on himself. He's already come a long way. He never doubted himself.
"You just have to have faith that things will work out," Walsh says. "I had faith. I knew."