HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) _ One pitch.
That’s how quickly Gabe Shepard went from top-shelf prep pitching prospect to wondering what his future would hold after tearing a ligament in his right elbow and undergoing Tommy John surgery on April 26, 2018.
“It was instant,” Shepard said, who will make his sophomore debut Friday with the University of Southern Mississippi. “I never had arm problems. I was one of those that was like a rubberband. I could go out there and throw every day. But I went out there, and that one pitch, and I knew it was torn.
“There was a lot going through my mind. I didn’t know how college was going to go, didn’t know whether I was going to medical redshirt. But as soon as it happened, a couple of days later, I told myself, ‘I’m going to play this year. I’m going to get back to where I need to be, and I’m going to play,’ because I just have that drive and determination.”
Shepard did just that.
“I sat out my freshman year of high school because I transferred, and I didn’t want to do that again,” he said. “I don’t like sitting out. I like playing.”
USM signed Shepard out of baseball power Faith Academy in Mobile, Ala., and pretty much adopted the same rehabilitation regime the Golden Eagles used with Hayden Roberts in 2016.
Roberts, who also was coming back from arm surgery, built up his stamina a bullpen session at a time. He eventually got the starting nod against Rice University in the 2016 Conference USA Baseball Tournament championship game, a 3-2 USM win that sent the Golden Eagles to their first NCAA regional in five seasons.
Shepard’s return last spring was even more eye-opening.
In February 2019, a little more than nine months after his surgery, he pitched an inning at Mississippi State in his first appearance for the University of Southern Mississippi. That was first of eight outings on a short pitch count for Shepard as he worked his way back.
Then came the stretch run of the season, a three-game stint of jaw-dropping dominance from a true freshman with 12 2/3 innings under his belt.
The run included:
Picking up his first win after shutting out Troy University on two hits over five innings. Shepard walked two, struck out nine in USM’s 12-2 victory
Combining with juniors Clay Carroll and Hunter Stanley on a no-hitter in a 6-0 victory over Rice University in the semifinals of the Conference USA Baseball Tournament. Shephard allowed only a walk in 7 1/3 innings, striking out 12
Allowing two runs on six hits over 5 2/3 innings as USM topped Arizona State University 15-3 in the opening round of the Baton Rouge NCAA Regional. Shepard walked three, struck out four
Shepard finished with a 2.35 ERA over 30 2/3 innings, allowing 21 hits and eight earned runs. He walked 13, struck out 46 and held opposing batters to an .194 average.
“As a true freshman, he came out at the end of the year, and in his last three outings, pitched as well as any true freshman we had here,” said USM coach Scott Berry, who is entering his 11th season at the helm and 20th year with the Golden Eagle program. “Really, really electric stuff, and I’m not just talking about the (velocity).
“He’s 97 (miles per hour) to 98 (miles per hour on his fastball), but the ability to attack hitters at this level against really good competition as a true freshman is what really amazed me.”
Shepard has continued to impress during the offseason, and will take the mound for the 2020 season opener at 4 p.m. Friday when the Golden Eagles welcome Murray State University to Pete Taylor Park.
USM will send senior right-hander Walker Powell (6-2, 2.72 ERA in 2019) against the Racers at 4 p.m. Saturday. True freshman left-hander Chandler Best will make his USM debut at 1 p.m. Sunday to close out the three-game series.
Shepard said he has been impressed with what he’s seen from his comrades’ arms.
“I feel like our pitching staff is better than it’s been,” Shepard said. “The young guys are coming in here, doing their job and getting after it every single day. I think we’re going to be good. We have chemistry as a staff.”
Shepard said he wasn’t fretting over when he would get the baseball.
“I’m comfortable with anything,” Shepard said. “I’m a big team guy, so me being Friday or Saturday or Sunday, it doesn’t matter. Whatever the coaches feel is best for the program and best for our team, I’m going to go out there and do what’s best for our team.
“I’m going to give it my all, whether that’s in the Friday spot, the Saturday spot, whatever.”
That selflessness and self-assurance is all part of the package.
“He’s very confident young man,” Berry said. “He carries himself a little bit different.
“He doesn’t get sped up, and over my years, and that’s 35 years of coaching college baseball, that the one consistency I see in really great players. They don’t get sped up. They don’t ride emotions. They pretty much stay the same the whole way.”
Shepard admits to one concession he’s made since his surgery: ditching his windup.
“Rhythm,” Shepard said. “Just finding my rhythm again. Coming back from surgery, not pitching in a while, it’s just kind of hard to command the zone. Once I finally figured it out, it was easy. I was back to where I was.
“The only thing that changed is that I was going from the stretch. I used to go with a windup in high school. I was in the stretch every single day with my rehab, so I was comfortable going from the stretch. Going from the windup like once a week, my command wasn’t right. So, every time I would go from the stretch, I would throw strikes. Windup, I wouldn’t.”
Shepard said he and the Golden Eagles are ready to get the season underway.
“We’ve been waiting on it for a while,” Shephard said.