TIM PEELER: After 22 Months, Stallings Eager to Pitch
BY TIM PEELER
RALEIGH – It was nearly 22 months ago that Jeff Stallings lost his curveball. He was warming up on the mound that April afternoon in 2005, getting ready to face Wake Forest, in his ninth start in a season in which he emerged as NC State’s Friday night pitcher.
He gutted out six innings, striking out a career-high seven batters with just a fastball and a change-up.
“I was feeling pain in my elbow and I just couldn’t throw the breaking ball,” Stallings says. “I sat out the next weekend and rested. I tried to throw the next week and it still felt funny. I went to get an MRI and found out [the elbow ligament] was torn.”
It’s not so uncommon anymore for high school, college or professional pitchers to suffer a ruptured ulnar collateral ligament. In essence, the ligament that holds the lower arm bone tears away from the bone, making the elbow shift from side-to-side during a throwing motion. Neither is it uncommon for pitchers to have the once-revolutionary Tommy John surgery, named for the pitcher of the 1970s and ‘80s who was the first to have a ligament removed from elsewhere in his body to replace the torn ligament in the elbow.
A recent survey said that one out of every nine major league pitchers has had the surgery, undergone the necessary rehabilitation and returned to the big leagues.
That was of little consolation to Stallings, a lightly recruited pitcher from Greenville, N.C., who had blossomed during his sophomore season in Raleigh. Like his even taller counterpart in the Wolfpack’s starting rotation, 6-11 Andrew Brackman, the 6-4 Stallings is a tall and rangy pitcher who relies on leverage to throw his upper-80s fastball. Then he gets batters out with his devastating circle changeup. In addition to a curveball, Stallings has recently added a slider to his collection of pitches.
But all of last year, he could do little but watch his teammates and keep his daily rehabilitation appointments, anywhere from an hour to two hours in the training room, trying to regain strength and range of motion in his right arm.
“It was really tough to have to sit and watch the guys play,” says Stallings, who will likely be the Wolfpack’s Sunday starter in the 2007 season that gets underway on Friday with a three-game series against William & Mary. “I was going through the rehab process and I had a lot of work to do.
“I am really glad to be back now.”
Wolfpack head coach Elliott Avent is glad he is back as well. With just three position players returning from last year’s 40-23 squad, Avent knows he will have to rely on a deep pitching rotation and bullpen, especially while his revamped offensive and defensive lineups gel through the early part of the season.
But he’s thrilled with what he has seen from Stallings since the young pitcher returned to the mound over the summer and throughout fall practice.
“Jeff is a fighter and a believer in himself and a big team guy,” Avent says. “I think a lot of his teammates are really counting on him. I think he is going to be a pleasant plus for our baseball team.”
With Brackman, sophomore Eric Surkamp and Stallings as the Wolfpack’s weekend rotation, and freshman lefty Jimmy Gillheeny for midweek games, Avent goes into the season set for starters. He has junior Eryk McConnell, Kyle Rutter and Joey Cutler in the bullpen. In Stallings’ eyes, that’s plenty of depth and talent for the Wolfpack, ranked No. 28 in the preseason by Baseball America, to be a contender in the highly competitive ACC.
“It’s by far the best staff I have seen since I have been here,” says Stallings, who was an all-conference pitcher at Greenville’s D.H. Conley High School in 2003. “I have seen great pitchers here in the conference and playing out-of-conference teams. We have a lot of talent on this staff and it ranks up there pretty high.
“I know we have a lot of new faces [in the field], but from what I have seen in fall practice and spring workouts, we have a lot of good talent. I think we have a lot of potential.”
Stallings wasn’t sure where he might fit in with Wolfpack. But the son of two East Carolina graduates, Ken and Nina Stallings, and a lifelong Pirate fan made the decision to join Avent’s program after pitching in the State Games of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He liked the idea of leaving Greenville to create his own identity with the Wolfpack.
As a freshman, he saw limited action in relief. But he blossomed while pitching for Saratoga of the New York Collegiate League in 2004, earning an invitation to the league’s all-star team after striking out 35 batters in 37 innings.
He got off to a great start as a sophomore, starting nine games and posting a 3.48 earned run average as the team’s top starter before his injury. Now, he’s ready to reassume an important role in the Wolfpack’s strong rotation.
“I think I am ready,” Stallings said. “I know it is going to be emotional when I come out for that first game. But I can’t wait to put the last 18 months behind me.”You may contact Tim Peeler at email@example.com.