Closing time for Florida baseball’s star reliever

By Anthony Chiang

Independent Florida Alligator, U. Florida via UWIRE

Kevin Chapman hasn’t received this much attention since high school.

The burly left-hander was a Louisville Slugger All-American at Westminster Academy where he recorded a 0.89 ERA in his junior year. In his senior season he was limited due to injury on his way to being drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 42nd round of the MLB Draft before even stepping foot onto a college campus.

Since arriving at U. Florida, the southpaw struggled to carve out a role on the team in his first three years – until now.

He opened this season as a middle reliever and ended it on the All-Southeastern Conference team as a closer.

Chapman has played a key role in a Gators bullpen that has been the catalyst to the team’s 36-0 record when leading after the sixth inning. It will look to continue that streak tonight at 7. when No. 4 Florida (42-15) begins regional play against Bethune-Cookman (35-20) in McKethan Stadium.

“Even from high school, he was always a guy that scouts coveted,” coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “It’s not like he has come out of nowhere. It was just a matter of time — when is he going to start reaching his potential? – and I think now he is starting to do that.”

After receiving a medical redshirt because of Tommy John surgery in what would have been his sophomore season and splitting time on the mound as a starter and reliever in his other two seasons at Florida, nobody knew what to expect from Chapman in his junior year.

“He really wasn’t on the map. He was just an X-factor,” Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt said. “You wondered what you were going to get out of that guy. I didn’t expect him to be a key part of this team.”

Now, Chapman isn’t only an integral part of the squad, he owns the second-most saves in the SEC and boasts a minuscule 1.31 ERA.

For the first time since his memorable junior season at Westminster Academy, the hard-throwing left-hander is at 100 percent – and it shows.

“I think it’s a combination of me being fully healthy and having three other years under my belt,” Chapman said. “I think that’s really helped me.”

Wear and Tear

It has been a while since Chapman’s arm has felt this strong – 2005, to be exact.

The domino effect that led to Tommy John surgery began in his senior year of high school.

Tendinitis in his throwing elbow limited him during his last season at Westminster Academy. It was a year that was supposed to start his rise to the next level – Chapman earned preseason Louisville Slugger All-America honors – but instead it began a nightmarish series of events.

“(The tendinitis) was like a discomfort thing, and it probably made me change my mechanics a little bit,” he said. “Over time, with wear and tear, it probably made my ligament break.”

In other words, the minor elbow injury led to Tommy John surgery. After a mediocre freshman campaign at Florida, Chapman underwent the serious procedure for an ulnar collateral ligament (elbow) tear in March 2008.

After rehabbing from the first surgery, he was forced go under the knife a second time in September 2008 to remove a bone chip in his left elbow. He sat out that entire season and received a medical redshirt.

But his return the next season wasn’t everything he expected.

Despite only taking the mound in 11 games, the numbers were there. Chapman put up a 2.38 ERA, but he knew his arm still wasn’t at full strength. For a hurler that normally hits 94 mph on the radar gun, he was topping off at 90 mph a year removed from the surgeries.

“I was definitely healthy as far as my arm,” he said. “It just wasn’t back to 100 percent strength. I had to build up some muscle and some arm strength.”

The lack of velocity, the injuries and a string of inconsistent performances since joining the Gators left everybody with low expectations for the pitcher.

However, Chapman finally fulfilled his potential this season, and he will likely reap the benefits in this year’s MLB Draft.

“He’s been chomping at the bit,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s been wanting to go since last year. He was healthy, but he just didn’t have as many innings under his belt as he needed to. We started seeing flashes last year.”

Ready for Next Level

Pitch velocity is not the only thing that has risen this season for the Coral Springs native.

The junior’s draft stock has skyrocketed. Chapman, who will be eligible for June’s MLB Draft, could be the first college closer selected and is the top 2010 draft prospect on Florida’s roster.

According to Fitt, who has talked to numerous MLB scouts, he could be selected at the back end of the first round.

“A three-pitch lefty with that kind of velocity (mid-90s) who has put up the numbers that he has put up,” Fitt said, “he is going to appeal to scouts who are numbers-oriented, but also scouts that are tools-oriented because his tools are ridiculous.”

Although Chapman estimates he uses his overpowering fastball 90 percent of the time, his sharp slider and deceiving changeup are what make him so attractive to professional scouts.

The only thing working against the lefty is his history of elbow injuries.

But he has put some of those doubts to rest this season after appearing in 28 games, the most out of any Gators pitcher this year.

“They definitely have a right to be worried about it – (Tommy John is) a major surgery,” Chapman said. “But this season I’ve been able to throw no problem – I’ve thrown back-to-back days. I feel like I just have shown that my arm is back to 100 percent.”

Fitt said it didn’t take long for scouts to gravitate toward the closer this season. Once they heard reports that his velocity was back, they were all talking about him, he said.

He is projected to stay in the bullpen once he makes the jump to the next level, but his history as a starter – he has logged seven starts at UF – gives him the versatility to do both.

“I think at this point he has found a niche in the bullpen,” Fitt said. “He succeeds there. He has the right mentality for it. Your stuff plays up when you are in the pen, and that’s what he has been able to do. So I think that is where he will stay in pro ball.”

All at the Right Time

It is not often that a player puts together an All-SEC season in the same year he is going to be eligible for the draft and Chapman doesn’t have to look far from his own clubhouse to find proof of that.

UF center fielder Matt den Dekker, Chapman’s cousin, struggled in his junior year and hit just .296 before posting a .355 batting average this season. He attributed the down year to the pressure that came along with impressing scouts.

But that hasn’t been a problem for Chapman, who has posted his best numbers in his draft season.

“He’s just been healthy,” den Dekker said. “He battled some injuries. He has always had a good arm and he’s doing a great job this year for us.”

This season, he has put it all together. He has struck out 40 batters in 41.1 innings of work, compared to just seven walks.

However, the three-year span full of elbow issues and uncertainty not only affected Chapman then — it is still with him now.

“They always say, ‘You never really know what you have until you lose it.’ I lost it there for a little bit,” Chapman said. “It really helped me realize how fun this game is and how much I’m blessed.”

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