It was September 2012 and Grant High School senior-to-be Jesse Stallings took the mound during a Perfect Game tournament in Houston for the most important audition of his young career.
LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn was in attendance and scouting out the next wave of potential Tigers to make their presences felt in Alex Box Stadium. Dunn’s eyes were on the 6-foot-2-inch, 205-pound Stallings, and the prospect was well aware of what was on the line.
The Colfax, La., native felt a pop in his elbow on his second pitch; another followed on his third.
He finished the inning with 12 pitches thrown, recording a strikeout and allowing one hit. But Stallings said he knew immediately something was wrong.
It wouldn’t be until March that he would get the official diagnosis: Stallings needed Tommy John surgery on his elbow, a procedure many pitchers go through that requires a yearlong recovery process. A piece of Stallings’ hamstring was taken to replace his injured ulnar collateral ligament.
“When I felt it, I knew it was bad,” Stallings said. “I continued to pitch [in the inning] because coach Dunn was there and a couple of other colleges were there watching me, and I was like, ‘If they came all the way to Houston to see me, then I’m not going to get off the mound.’”
Stallings said his first thought was to immediately get the surgery because he wanted to return to the mound as quickly as possible.
He broke the news to LSU coach Paul Mainieri following the Tigers’ March 13, 2013, game against Nicholls State.
“My first reaction was that I felt so sorry for the kid,” Mainieri said. “He worked hard to put himself into a position to be a good prospect for college, then he has to deal with such a tremendous disappointment in his life. We told him that this did not deter us from our interest in him.”
The Grant High senior went through with the procedure in April, and he eventually had to attend rehab for both his arm and his leg. Though he will join the Tigers for the 2014 campaign, he will have to redshirt for his true freshman season.
His recovery timetable has him slated to return to the mound competitively this summer after the 2014 season, and he is currently working bullpen sessions. He said he expects to be pitching in simulated games in a few weeks, and he hasn’t felt any elbow pain since the surgery.
Prior to the injury, Stallings’ fastball velocity hovered in the high 80s, with it occasionally hitting 92 mph. He said he thinks his velocity could increase when he returns to full strength on the mound.
Stallings said he can’t imagine what his emotions will be like when he takes the mound for the first time in Alex Box in 2015.
“LSU baseball fans are the biggest and best in college baseball,” Stallings said. “We’ll have our times when we aren’t playing our best, but they’re still there and they’ll have our backs. Even the fact that one of these days I’ll be on the mound and they’ll be cheering me on really brightens my day.”
For now, Stallings, a wildlife biology major, said his main focus is in the classroom. Once spring practices begin, he said he wants to be there to help the team in any way that he can.
Before LSU ever approached Stallings, he said he always wanted to be a Tiger. He wanted to play in Alex Box no matter how many other colleges contacted him, and he would only go to another university if LSU felt he wasn’t good enough.
His dream of becoming a Tiger recently came to fruition as he stared down at his new uniform.
“The other day, we had to take head shots, and they had our actual names on the jerseys, and I just kind of went wild,” he said. “It really sunk in.”
Mainieri said he expects Stallings to continue to work hard both on and off the field. Though Stallings won’t be on the mound this season, Mainieri said the freshman will still be a valuable asset to the program.
“One thing that has struck me about Jesse is what a pleasure he is to have around,” Mainieri said. “He’s very reliable, very dependable and a very hard-working young man. I think the world of him, and I’m just really proud of how he’s handled this.”