Wise Happy to Return

Arkansas began baseball practice Friday with a surprise leader. Captain Jake Wise wasn't expected back, but elbow surgery pushed back his pro career another year.

Without a doubt, Jake Wise is a glass all the way full kind of guy. Don't even try to make it half full with the senior Arkansas catcher. He won't go there.

Admittedly, Wise expected to be drafted after his junior year at Arkansas. A defensive wiz with a great arm and a fighter who was coveted by major league scouts, Wise was going to sign, too. It's almost always best to take the money after your junior year because there will be less for a senior with no leverage.

"I was going out," Wise said. "There was no doubt about it. I had made up my mind. I didn't have a very good year at the plate, but I was still going to get drafted."

That all changed when he felt that dreaded "pop" in his throwing elbow midway through the NCAA Regional at Manhattan, Kan., in June. He finished the game, but was thankful no one tried to run on him. He knew his elbow was in bad shape. He'd heard enough pitchers describe the feeling of a torn elbow ligament to know he probably had one.

"I guess I'd thrown out enough that no one ran on me the rest of the game – and we got an early lead. I didn't tell anyone until afterwards. The trainers did the test after the game and confirmed it was torn."

It didn't take Wise long to see the bright side of the injury. Yes, he was going to need the famed Tommy John surgery to repair his throwing elbow, but it was going to give him a second chance at his final season at Arkansas. He knew his .212 batting average of his junior year needed to be replaced with something more like his .244 as a sophomore.

"I thought, 'Good, I can come back and now I'll have the chance to lead this team and prove my ability,'" he said. "I may not get much money, but it's going to be fun."

In fact, he said he's having more fun than in any of his first three seasons at Arkansas. The Hogs opened full team practice Friday and Wise was a happy man, despite the chilly temperatures.

"Yeah, this is the most fun I've had in college," Wise said. "This is easily the season that I most look forward to here."

One of the reasons, so little is expected of this team, compared to recent Arkansas squads. The Hogs went to the College World Series two years ago, finishing third. They were preseason No. 1 last year because of one of the nation's best pitching staffs.

"We aren't in the top 40 right now and that's going to make it more fun," Wise said. "Last year so much was expected and that might have been why we struggled. This year we are so young and it's just all going to be so much fun.

"When we beat a top ranked team – and we are going to play a lot of them in the SEC – people are going to say, 'Those guys are good.' We are at the University of Arkansas. There are no rebuilding years here. I know not much is expected, but we always have talent. I've been here three years and there is as much talent here as we've had, just not a lot of the pitchers have played.

"I do think this is the most talented offense we've had in my time here. We aren't going to step back with our pitching and there is a lot of flexibility on our roster. You look at our pitching, we have guys who can start or relieve."

The work horse of the staff will likely be lefty junior Jalen Beeks, the setup guy last year for Colby Suggs. Beeks has a plus breaking ball and a great changeup. He'll throw both in any count.

"To me, Jalen was one of our most valuable pitchers last year," Wise said. "And, you can see him getting stronger this year. He could close for us. He could start. He started this summer in the Cape Cod League.

"He was our bridge guy. He could pitch to righthanders or lefthanders. He could go three innings, or get one out. He has a rubber arm. He could probably pitch three times on the weekend if we really need him."

Wise is fighting back from winter double sports hernia surgery. He shrugs that off about like the Tommy John surgery.

"I've never been hurt in my life – and I've been playing baseball since I was 4 – so I got all of it in a short time," he said. "I'm running close to full speed now. They don't want me to start and stop fast. But I'm fine.

"My arm is great. I don't have any problems with either surgery. There's no pain anywhere. As far as throwing, I can throw 210 feet and that's about twice as far as going to second base. So I'm good with that.

"I took last summer off and that was the first time I wasn't playing baseball since I was 12. It was probably good to get away. I took it as a positive. My body probably just needed some time. I am ready to go now."

Wise was voted captain for the second straight year, not a surprise to Dave Van Horn. The Arkansas coach loves it when his catcher is a captain.

"It just makes things easier, since he's handling the pitchers, to have your catcher a captain," Van Horn said. "We've had a run like that. He's good with our young pitchers."

Van Horn doesn't worry about the short turnaround for Wise after Tommy Johnson surgery, or the hernia surgery.

"Pitchers, they need more than one year," Van Horn said. "It's just different for position players. They come back a lot sooner. He's really doing well with his throwing. The hernia was a surprise, but we wanted to get that fixed and get him back right now. And he's come back from it pretty well.

"We had both Jake and Tyler Spoon need it and we got them to a specialist and fixed right away. And I think the Tommy John surgery helped Jake at the plate. It shortened his swing. He's looked good at the plate. He has a shorter, more compact, quicker stroke."

Wise thinks the talent is there in that young staff.

"This wasn't a surprise to our coaches," Wise said. "They've known for two years that we were going to have a lot of pitchers sign. So they recruited to it and were prepared."

The coaching staff also signed several catchers thinking Wise would be gone, too. It didn't work out that way. Some might be hanging their head over that, but not Jake Wise. He's ready for some fun.

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