FAYETTEVILLE — Catcher Jake Wise needed some time to let reality sink in last summer, when it became clear he was coming back to Arkansas for 2014.
He wasn’t planning to return. The draft-eligible junior expected to begin his professional career after the 2013 season. But he suffered an elbow injury in the Manhattan (Kan.) Regional that would require Tommy John surgery and then, a few days later, Wise wasn’t selected in the Major League Baseball Draft.
“It took me about two days,” Wise said. “Then you realize you get to come back here. Maybe if I didn’t go to such a great school, it would have been a little harder.”
It may not have been planned, but Wise enters 2014 as a key piece of an Arkansas team trying to redefine itself after the massive departures from its record-setting pitching staff. The Razorbacks will count on more offense this season, while Wise also works with a young staff learning the ropes when the season opens Feb. 14.
He was selected as one of three team captains in the offseason and is the most experienced player on Arkansas’ roster. So while Wise may not have expected to be back this season, it’s a sign the Razorbacks view it as a blessing in disguise.
“He’s our engine,” said Arkansas outfielder Tyler Spoon, who also was elected as a team captain. “When he goes, we go. He’s our captain. He’s the man. He keeps everyone in line. He just keeps everything going. It’s good to have him back.”
Wise hit .212 with 3 home runs and 23 RBIs last season. He also had a .991 fielding percentage and threw out 20 of 52 runners attempting to steal bases last season.
Defense was expected to give Wise an opportunity to play pro baseball after the season. But those plans changed quickly, when Wise felt something wrong with his elbow during the NCAA Tournament. He was examined after the season ended and needed surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right elbow.
“It is tough seeing your whole class that you came in with, everybody that you spent three years and a lot of blood, sweat and tears with, leave (after being drafted),” Wise said. “But now I’ve got a bunch of new teammates and a new goal.”
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said Wise has been positive despite the disappointment and his leadership was evident in the offseason.
Wise has given Arkansas much-needed experience at a position that also includes redshirt freshman Blake Baxendale and true freshmen Alex Gosser and Carson Shaddy. He has worked with the young players to prepare them for the season, while also getting a feel for the pitchers who will take the mound for the Hogs.
“His attitude has been good,” Van Horn said. “Probably the most verbal he’s ever been, because he’s kind of a quiet kid. He’s really taken a leadership role on this team.”
Wise is still working his way back from Tommy John surgery, but was able to swing the bat during the fall. He worked hard with new hitting coach Tony Vitello to shorten his swing and Van Horn said he “looks good.” Wise should continue to man a spot in the bottom half of Arkansas’ lineup when he’s ready to return.
Van Horn hopes it will be in time for the opener. Progress was delayed in December when Arkansas discovered Wise needed double hernia surgery. He wasn’t able to go through the full practice when Arkansas opened drills late last week, but said the Razorbacks are being cautious as he recovers.
“It’s hard getting old,” Wise said about his approach to an offseason filled with rehabilitation. “I’ve actually tried to take a positive outlook on it and take some mental time away from the game because people don’t realize how long the college season is. You go from the regular season to the postseason, summer, back to fall. We don’t really have an offseason. So I kind of just took it as an offseason.
“I had some stuff I couldn’t do because of the Tommy John or the hernia. But I just tried to get away from the game a little bit and recover fully.”
Wise is confident he’ll be ready for the season to begin on Feb. 14, though.
He’s eager for his senior year, too, after coming to grips with his return to the Hogs.
“You’ve got nothing to lose,” Wise said. “I’m a senior, it’s my last year, and it’s pretty much a whole new team. So I’m just looking to have fun.”