A little over a year ago, Gabe Shepard’s right elbow went under the knife for reconstructive Tommy John Surgery.
It’s not uncommon these days for young pitchers to undergo the same surgery and make a full recovery, but there are no guarantees.
Following a thoroughly dominant outing that earned a standing ovation and a curtain call from Southern Miss fans, the freshman right-hander showed that he is better than ever.
Shepard led the way as he and a pair of relievers, Cody Carroll and Hunter Stanley, combined to toss the first no-hitter in Conference USA tournament history in a 6-0 victory over Rice on Saturday in the semifinals at MGM Park.
The Golden Eagles (37-19) will play the winner of FAU-UTSA at 1 p.m. on Sunday in the C-USA title game, which will air on CBS Sports Network. Tickets are available for $15 at the MGM Park box office.
Shepard made the longest outing of his USM career, lasting 7 1/3 innings. He struck out 12 and walked a single batter to begin the sixth inning.
When Shepard stepped up to speak with media after the game, he appeared to be in a euphoric daze.
“I’m just on a high right now,” he said. “I’m just feeding off a great team, amazing fans. Just the adrenaline is pumping right now. I don’t really feel anything to be honest.”
The day started just like any normal game day for Shepard, but it quickly became apparent to the Mobile, Alabama, native that Saturday would be far from the usual.
“After the first batter, I knew I was on,” he said. “I had my stuff.
“It was something different. I’ve never experienced it before. That was totally different than what I’ve ever experienced. I was in a total different zone. The fans behind me are the greatest fans. It just felt like I was on a different level than anybody else.”
Shepard described the zone as, “Nobody else around you. All you hear is yelling and you’re focusing on the catcher and not worried about the hitter. You’re just hitting your spots.”
Of Shepard’s 91 pitches, 65 were strikes.
One Major League scout with a radar gun said that Shepard’s fastball stayed between 93 and 96 miles an hour.
The only ball that moved faster than one of Shepard’s pitches on Saturday was likely the solo homer by Matt Wallner in the third inning that traveled 105 miles per hour over the right field wall.
Bryant Bowen added a pair of solo homers of his own, but the only one that Shepard needed was Bowen’s shot to left in the second inning for the 1-0 lead.
Shepard’s velocity was on an elite level, but what made it so difficult for Rice was the alarming spin on his fastball.
USM coach Scott Berry wasn’t surprised to hear that Shepard’s fastball stayed at 93-96.
“Well, it looked like it,” he said. “If you look at the analytics today and the spin rate, I’m sure he was very, very high on that spin rate. Rice’s hitters could not catch up with it. He has a live fastball that jumps on you. It gets on you quicker than it appears.”
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Shepard worked the entire game out of the stretch, a motion that feels more comfortable as he works his way back from elbow surgery.
“I haven’t got my rhythm back yet from surgery,” he said. “I’m going to stay in the stretch. It’s working for me. Why not?”
Along with his fastball, Shepard repeatedly hit his spots with his secondary pitches.
“The bigger curve ball was catching them off guard a little bit and I threw a hard slider in there that also kept them on their toes,” he said. “I just had too many pitches for them to think about at the plate.”
USM pitching coach Christian Ostrander walked to the mound to remove Shepard after he retired the first man of the seventh inning. Shepard was joined by some USM fans as he lobbied to remain in the game, but the decision was made to bring in junior right-hander Cody Carroll.
“That was for the future, nothing more,” Berry said.
Shepard, who showed more emotion with each strikeout, was embraced by each of his teammates as he walked back to the dugout. He came back onto the field and raised his arms to acknowledge the fans following a chant of “Gabe” from the USM crowd of about 3,000 people.
It was an important moment a player whose baseball career was uncertain just a year ago.
“I’m just one of those guys that does everything to a T,” Shepard said. “When I went down, it was a heartbreak. I thought I might lose a scholarship. Everything was running through my head. I had scouts looking at me and that just went down the drain. I just wanted to work as hard as I could to get back where I was. I did and I feel like I’m better. It’s worked out for me.”
Rice came its closest to a hit when the first man Carroll faced, Rodrigo Duluc, sent a drive that left fielder Gabe Montenegro tracked down with a diving grab for the second out of the eighth.
Carroll followed with a strikeout, one of 14 total for USM, to keep the Owls hitless through eight innings.
In the ninth, junior right-hander Hunter Stanley breezed through a 1-2-3 inning that ended with a simple pop fly to Wallner in right field.
Stanley jumped off the mound following the final out and his teammates rushed the field for a brief celebration.
“The pressure was on (Carroll and Stanley) to not to give up a hit,” Berry said. “They responded well.”
A win in Sunday’s title game would give USM an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but Berry believes his team has already earned an at-large spot.
“This is not a one-bid league,” he said. “It’s too competitive and I’m sure a lot of leagues out there have the same argument. To go to the championship game after we’ve been up in the top all year long, Southern Miss made the statement that we should be in that 64.”