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Focus, Dedication Quickly Returns Nelson To Prominence

By Alan Matthews
May 24, 2004

We all have a routine before turning in for the night. It usually involves a few mindless tasks and some warm water.

But for the past eight months, bedtime for Chris Nelson has involved far more than Colgate and Clearasil.

"Every night working on my arm, that's all I have thought about," says Nelson, who is eight months removed from Tommy John surgery that could have erased his shot at a spot in the first round of the draft. "Every morning, when I wake up, every day at practice, after practice and every night before I go to bed, all I have thought about is getting back to where I was."

Nelson is back to where he was--on the field at shortstop and at the top of major league draft boards.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound senior from Redan High in suburban Atlanta was considered the top prep prospect for this year's draft last summer. Then he went down with a torn ligament in his elbow in September. And while it could have derailed many high school prospects, Nelson bounced back quickly through hard work and focus.

He walked into Dr. James Andrews' office in Birmingham on Sept. 25, feeling as if he had lost the momentum from a splendid showcase and tournament tour. Nelson was everywhere and did everything--exceptionally well--last summer, standing out with his quick stroke at the plate and 92-95 mph fastball from the mound.

Instead of moping after the surgery, though, he just changed his focus. He pursued his rehab aggressively and decided to dedicate himself to improving as an everyday player, ending notions of entering the draft as a player with two-way potential.

The decision worked out well. In spite of the injury, Nelson's draft stock never fell precipitously, and he remained among the top 10 position player prospects all year, in an admittedly weak year for hitters. His accelerated recovery has made him look even better.

"I don't remember a kid with his tools at that position in my area in awhile," said one veteran scout. "Plus, he's got off-the-charts makeup. He's an intelligent kid, a leader . . . As a scout, you look at (disappointing) players all year, then you have to go treat yourself and watch Nelson."

Uncertain Status

Nelson carried the torch for the high-profile East Cobb (Ga.) youth program last summer, and led his East Cobb summer league club to the Connie Mack World Series in August.

His arm began bothering him at the close of that tournament, but a month later he was named MVP at the inaugural AFLAC Classic, where he homered off San Diego standout Matt Bush. More than 55 scouts were at the game, which featured many of the best rising seniors in the nation, and Nelson looked like a certain first-rounder, with a good shot at being among the first five selections overall.

Then the injury was discovered. Nelson's performance had been so good and his tools graded out so well that he was not heavily recruited by colleges. Recruiters decided they would be better served trying to sign players who might actually make it to campus.

But after surgery in September, the phone began ringing with calls from recruiters across the country who saw the injury as an opportunity. Nelson stuck with Georgia, one of just a couple of programs that recruited him throughout high school.

The choice suddenly became more significant than the token commitment some high school players make to use as leverage in draft negotiations. The roller-coast of his draft status now included speculation that he would attend school and work his arm back into shape against Southeastern Conference competition.

"It was the whole range," Nelson says. "I went from a high pick to a low (pick) and then back to a high (pick). It has been back and forth, and now I'm playing and am just neutral. Because I had an injury I thought my stock dropped, and definitely I was going to Georgia, because after an injury you just think that things are going to be different."

Working His Way Back

After surgery, though, Nelson was back in the batting cage by Christmas and was cleared to open the season as Redan's DH. He played catch in practice and eventually started taking ground balls at short as well, but for the first six weeks of the season he concentrated on his stroke.

"He can really hit," one scouting director said. "He's got a short, compact swing, good hands, quick hands and a quick bat. And he uses the whole field."

It's hard to find a similar scouting report among this year's group of position players, whether in high school or college, making Nelson's bat an even more coveted commodity for organizations in need of hitters.

When Nelson was an underclassman, scouts compared him with another athletic middle infielder from Redan, Indians prospect Brandon Phillips, who was a second-round selection by the Expos in 1999. Like Phillips, Nelson is an above-average runner with good actions up the middle. But as Nelson's bat has blossomed, the comparisons have moved to players with more impact potential, including dynamic Devil Rays shortstop B.J. Upton.

"He's got solid tools across the board," an area scout said. "His bat is further along than Upton's was at the same time. He's got bat speed, contact ability, a little pop and he projects to have more home run power down the road."

Nelson's defense also gets rave reviews. Scouts who have seen him this spring say his arm looks healthy and already rates well-above-average again. Many crosscheckers and scouting directors have not had a chance to see Nelson in the field, however, because he was not cleared at shortstop until mid-April.

"I would say that it would hurt him normally, but the fact that there is a shortage of position players across the country this year outweighs that," a scouting director said.

In his first game back at short, against Lakeside High, it wasn't long before Nelson proved himself. In the top of the first, he had three balls hit his way, testing his arm and his instincts.

"It was just like my first day playing baseball," he says, recalling more butterflies than usual that afternoon. "It wasn't like the ground balls were going to get me, because I have taken hundreds of ground balls, but just game-time situations."

Nelson got his man on every play. Slightly more than six months after surgery. In the span of a few minutes, a series of ground balls provided ample evidence not only of the soundness of his arm, but also of his perseverance and resilience.

"After the surgery it was a long process of rehabbing," he says, exhaling a deep breath. "It really made me look at things differently from what I had a chance to do and just maintaining my body to get to that place."

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