A ballpark in Alexandria became a meeting place for prominent LSU baseball figures one night last summer.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri found himself two hours northwest of Baton Rouge to watch a pitching prospect take the rubber. Mainieri took his seat in the stands, soon realizing that he wasn’t the only person with LSU ties in the audience.
Russ Springer, an Alexandria native who pitched for LSU in the late 1980s before beginning an 18-year MLB career, happened to be sitting next to the Tigers coach.
Mid-conversation, Springer brought up one member of the 2015 Tigers’ pitching staff: redshirt freshman right-hander Jesse Stallings.
If that kid is healthy, Springer said, he’s a really good pitcher.
“I never forgot that he told me that,” Mainieri said.
When the conversation occurred, Mainieri didn’t have a strong evaluation of his second-year pitcher.
He has more of an idea now.
Fully recovered from shoulder surgery that forced him to miss his true freshman season, Stallings is impressing during the first portion of LSU’s preseason practice. At a recent scrimmage this week, he showed a fastball that was clocked at 94 mph and a variety of breaking balls that had a few hitters baffled.
Earlier this month after an individual workout, Mainieri said he could only think of Stallings on his drive home from Alex Box Stadium.
The redshirt freshman is leaving those kinds of impressions. He’s battling for a spot in a bullpen cluttered with young talent as the Tigers complete their first week of preseason practice.
“I’m excited about that young man. He’s a wonderful kid and an intelligent young man with the greatest attitude you ever saw,” Mainieri said. “I think he’s going to help us.”
It’s been a long route to this point. Just in the last year or so he had to re-learn how to walk, for instance.
When the season arrives Feb. 13, he’ll have his chance to live out a childhood dream that seemed impossible about 2½ years ago.
Stallings, a valued prospect while at Grant High School, felt his elbow pop on his second pitch at a Perfect Game tournament in Houston in September 2012. LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn was in attendance scouting him. Stallings threw 12 pitches but was unable to lift his arm when he returned to the dugout.
Dunn saw everything he needed in Stallings’ one healthy pitch.
“That’ll work,” Dunn said he told him.
He suffered the elbow injury and six months later decided to have Tommy John surgery — a procedure that typically involves a yearlong recovery. Mainieri still recruited Stallings, and the Colfax native took a medical redshirt in 2013-14.
“It gave me tremendous confidence (to still be recruited by LSU),” Stallings said. “I knew they were interested, and I’ve always dreamed of coming to LSU since I was a little kid.”
Following his surgery, Stallings began the rehab process, working specifically on shoulder, elbow and forearm exercises. He also had to rehab his left leg — a piece of his hamstring was used to replace his ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow.
Stallings gained 10 pounds during his recovery, and he had to re-learn how to walk. He began his throwing program in late July 2013. He took a mound for the first time five months later.
On May 30, 2014, Stallings made his first game appearance in two years when he entered a game for the Acadiana Cane Cutters.
“As long as it had been, I really forgot how it felt,” Stallings said. “I forgot how to warm up before the game. I didn’t know how to prepare myself. And when I finally got on the rubber, I was definitely nervous.”
Stallings made 12 appearances, including six starts, for the Cane Cutters, finishing 1-3 with a 4.02 ERA.
He said he wasn’t concerned about his numbers over the summer. He knew every delivery he made was progress.
“I didn’t really pay attention to the stats or anything because I knew this was just the process of learning how to pitch again,” Stallings said. “I hadn’t done it in so long, so I had kind of a grey area in my head.”
He returned to LSU in the fall with three pitches and a healthy arm. Stallings wanted to add a fourth to his arsenal, though.
Throughout high school, Stallings never knew how to throw a changeup. He immediately started working with Dunn to add the off-speed pitch.
“I just believe that the fastball and changeup are two important pitches that, if you can command both of those pitches, then you can pitch anywhere in baseball,” Dunn said. “Pitching is about controlling the timing of the hitter ... so it’s a very big pitch.”
Stallings has seen a jump in his velocity, too. His fastball has hit 94 mph on the gun this spring. His previous high was 92 mph.
“Immediately, that’s a power arm for you,” Mainieri said. “The bottom line on it is that strength of arm is not the only factor that makes a pitcher successful, but the guy who throws harder is going to be tougher to hit for the other team.”
Stallings said he knows his adrenaline will be pumping the moment Mainieri motions for the Colfax native to head to the bullpen. Stallings did yoga over the summer, often visualizing himself taking the mound for the first time in Alex Box.
The right-hander said he’ll be ready, and he’s prepared to win and keep a spot on the roster.
“I want to show (Mainieri) that I have the fire in me,” Stallings said. “I don’t want to tell him that I can earn it.”
“I want to go out there and get on the mound and show him that I can earn it.”