Jacob Mead was all set to give up baseball for good when former UNO assistant coach Brett Stewart asked him whether he would play for the Privateers in 2021.
Despite undergoing Tommy John surgery along the way, he could not be happier he said yes.
Mead, a fifth-year senior from Round Rock, Texas, is the reigning Southland Conference pitcher of the week after earning three saves in four games — good enough to take over the team lead. Before that stretch, his last and only save came in 2019 at tiny Angelina Community College in Lufkin, Texas.
“Just being able to throw a baseball again has been huge for me,” he said. “Every time I’m out there I treat it like it’s the most important inning of my life and just enjoy the moment.”
The moments he enjoyed last week were better than the rest. After excelling in lower-leverage situations earlier in the season, he entered with the bases loaded and no outs in the ninth inning against Jackson State and struck out the side to preserve a 6-3 win.
That save earned him another huge opportunity three days later against Houston Christian. After UNO went ahead 9-6 in the opener, he pitched the eighth and ninth and surrendered only an unearned run, which scored on a double play groundout after an error.
He went one inning longer in the finale, holding Houston Christian to one hit after entering in the seventh with an 8-6 lead as UNO moved up to sixth place in the standings two weeks ahead of the seven-team Southland tournament.
His numbers for the week — six innings, two hits, no unearned runs, no walks and six strikeouts — should not have come as a surprise. His ERA for the year is 0.47, and he had yet to allow an extra-base hit in 16 appearances over 19⅓ innings entering Friday’s doubleheader at Incarnate Word.
“It’s just a different mentality,” he said. “I know I’m not going to play pro baseball. When you realize that, I feel you take a lot of self-pressure off of yourself. I’m out there locked in and not getting overwhelmed. It’s made it a lot more fun, too.”
Mead never figured to be in this situation. In 2018, Angelina took him as a walk-on at the recommendation of the school’s former pitching coach, who had Mead on his summer-league team. He put up decent numbers, first as a starter in 2018 (4-2, 4.54 ERA) and then as a reliever in 2019 (3-1, 2.97), but he sat out 2020 after transferring to New Mexico and planned to go home to attend nearby Texas as a student only.
Then, after changing his mind, he tore his ulnar collateral ligament in UNO’s final preseason scrimmage of 2021.
“The first thing I thought as soon as I heard it pop was this wasn’t going to be the last time I throw a baseball,” he said. “I felt like I’d worked too hard my whole life for that to be the way I go out.”
He returned to pitch last year for the first time since 2019, but he was at the back end of the bullpen, logging 14 innings with an ERA of 3.86 in non-pressure situations.
This season began similarly. His first appearance came with a 12-0 deficit against Southern Miss, and he also pitched at the end of a 16-0 loss to LSU.
“Every outing that you have, you’ve got to treat it as the most important of your life because they build upon themselves and get you more and more trust,” he said. “Mentally, I’m more mature because I know how hard I worked to be there. I have a big scar on my elbow.”
Never a flame-thrower despite being 6-foot-3, Mead works off a changeup. After Tommy John surgery, he also developed a sinking fastball in a repertoire teammates call the yo-yo.
“His changeup is a really good pitch,” UNO coach Blake Dean said. “The guys can never truly get on him because he’s got the off-speed mix that makes him difficult to hit. He doesn’t beat himself. He makes the other team beat him.”
Even if Mead’s stuff tops out in the 80s, opponents have not solved it.
“I don’t even look at the speed (register) anymore,” he said. “When I throw it by them, I think in my head I’m throwing 100 (miles per hour).”