At Hopkinton (N.H.), an unlikely overnight sensation

At the end of last summer Hopkinton (N.H.) High School’s Jake Nelson was hoping his catching skills would earn him an opportunity to play at a mid-major Division 1 baseball program. A lot has changed since then.

For starters, Nelson began this season as Hopkinton’s No. 1 pitcher, a position he hasn’t played with any regularity since eighth grade. It’s also unlikely that he’ll play mid-major Division I baseball, since he’s now being watched closely by professional scouts and representatives from some of the top college baseball programs in the country.

Everything changed because of one pitch.

Nelson, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound senior, attended a baseball camp at the University of Connecticut last August. He showed up as a catcher, his primary position since his freshman season at Hopkinton. He left the camp as a pitcher after creating a buzz with a fastball few people, if anybody, knew he possessed.

Here’s how it all unfolded:

After the camp’s first day, the UConn coaching staff invited any player who didn’t pitch that day to stay late and throw in the bullpen. Although he had pitched only two-thirds of an inning during his high school career, Nelson decided he would stick around and throw.

“I did it because I really had nothing else to do,” Nelson explained. “it was either that or head back to my hotel room.

“I threw one pitch and they shut me down for the night. Coach MacDonald (UConn pitching coach Josh MacDonald) said, ‘Are you sure you don’t pitch? Are you sure you don’t pitch at all?’ They told me I was going to be pitching the next day.”

Nelson, who throws right-handed, hit 91 mph on the radar gun the following afternoon. Several weeks later he was clocked at 93 mph during the Perfect Game WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla. Interest has increased since then.

Nelson has passed on scholarship offers from Boston College, Northeastern, Bryant, St. John’s and Hartford. He has offers from Duke and Georgia Tech, and is receiving interest from Vanderbilt, Clemson, North Carolina and Virginia. He made an official visit to Vanderbilt last month.

Coaches from Dartmouth and Harvard clocked Nelson at 92 m.p.h. Monday, when he pitched in a 6-5 loss to Bow.

“Everything has totally come out of nowhere,” Nelson said. “My entire intention of going down to UConn was to play baseball on the last weekend of the summer. I was just hoping not to embarrass myself when I pitched (at UConn) the next day.”

There is also the possibility of a pro career at some point. Nelson, who also plays varsity basketball for Hopkinton, said he has filled out paperwork for at least half of the teams in Major League Baseball.

“(As a catcher) there were real questions about how good of a hitter he would be,” said an American League scout. “Going in that direction his options were not that great. He’s a good athlete and he’s got arm strength. He’s just learning how to pitch right now.

“He’s in a great position. (Pitching) presented opportunities that wouldn’t have been there a year ago.”

Nelson, 17, plans to attend Phillips Andover Academy in the fall, when he will reclassify to the Class of 2015. He could be taken in next month’s MLB draft, and, if he does reclassify, he’ll be eligible for next year’s draft as well.

Perfect Game, which bills itself as the world’s largest scouting service, projects that Nelson will be taken in rounds 11 through 25 in this year’s draft, and in rounds four through 10 if he’s drafted next year. Perfect Game has him ranked as the 33rd best prospect among right-handed pitchers in the Class of 2015.

“He’s still in the draft mix, but I would say (turning professional) this year is far fetched,” said Nelson’s father, Tim. “I don’t think he’ll go anywhere near high enough in the draft to change his goal of playing in college. Prep school is another year of maturity. He’ll get bigger, stronger. Plus I think he’d like to play another year of basketball.”

Nelson, who still catches when he’s not on the mound, entered this season not having pitched in a varsity game since he recorded two outs in a mop-up role as a freshman.

“He always threw the ball back to the pitchers harder than they threw it to him, but I knew his plan was to play in college as a catcher,” Hopkinton coach Dave Chase said. “I guess I had given up on the thought that he was going to pitch because I didn’t want to jeopardize his future as a catcher.

“His mechanics have gotten better, but he’s a catcher who’s pitching right now.”

Nelson has played for the New England Ruffnecks, a Massachusetts-based elite travel team, in each of the last two summers. He said he will play for the Ruffnecks this summer as well.

In addition to his blistering fastball, he’s working on a slider and a changeup.

“Getting drafted would be exciting, but right now I’m trying to figure out where the best fit for me is in terms of college,” Nelson said. “I’m in such a good spot right now. I don’t think I have any bad choices.”