FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.–When Ryan Eades was a sophomore in high school, scouts in Louisiana thought he would become a first-round pick. It turns out, they might be right—it just took a little longer than they expected for him to get there. As a junior at Louisiana State, the hard-throwing righthander is learning to harness the talent that spawned those bold prophecies five years ago.
Eades made a name for himself by running his fastball up to 94 mph when he was 16, but a shoulder injury limited him to DH duties down the stretch of his junior year at Northshore High in Slidell, La. He needed surgery to repair a partially torn labrum, but he put off the procedure so he could help lead Northshore to a state title as a hitter. Dr. James Andrews performed the surgery after the season in May.
"It was scary, very scary, to say the least," Eades recalled. "I'm 17 years old, and I have a torn labrum. I didn't know what a labrum was when I was 17 years old. You hear of Tommy John (surgery) all the time, but labrum, what is that? Of course you go on the Internet, and it's nothing but pretty much the worst. It was like, 'Damn, this isn't good.' I knew it was going to be a long road to recovery and getting back to where I wanted to be. But I was just determined to get back where I was and get better than I was before."
The rehabilitation process frustrated Eades, especially once he started throwing and had no feel for where the ball was going. The most difficult thing was learning to trust that he could throw at full strength without re-injuring his shoulder. He called it a "mental block" that he had to overcome.
Eades played first base his senior year but did not pitch. He said he probably could have returned to the mound by the end of the season, but he did not want to take any chances. Instead of being drafted in the first round as once forecast, he fell to the Rockies in the 19th round, and he made his way to LSU.
Eades grew up just an hour or so from Baton Rouge, and naturally he was an LSU fan. He attended an LSU baseball camp in the fall of his sophomore year, and he committed right away when the Tigers offered him a scholarship. "It was an easy decision for me, because that was my dream, to be part of the Tigers," he said.
Staying close to home rather than heading straight to professional ball was also the best thing for Eades personally. When he was 12, Eades' father Ned died after battling cancer. Ned Eades had been a catcher in the Reds organization (where he was blocked by Johnny Bench), and Ryan said his father taught him everything he knew about pitching. The loss was tough on the family, of course.
"When my dad passed away, I was kind of lost at that point, because we were a very close family before my dad passed away," Eades said. "It was hard on everyone. Me being the oldest boy, it made me grow up quicker, and so to speak become the man of the house as I got older. It brought us closer—we just leaned on each other and got through it. It doesn't make it any easier now that time has passed; there are some hard days. Things happen for a reason, and it made our family closer."
Attending LSU allowed Eades to stay near his mother Marian and his younger brother Chris.
"He was there to help his mom and younger brother, so I felt that the kid was going to come to school, he needed it, wanted it, wanted to be around his family until the time came that it was right," LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. "As fate would have it, he got hurt, didn't pitch, didn't go in the first round, and it probably was the best thing for him to come to school."
Eades began his collegiate career in the LSU bullpen, gradually building up his arm strength and refining his command. He started some midweek games in the second half, then moved into the weekend rotation for LSU's final two Southeastern Conference series. He finished the year 4-1, 4.81 in 43 innings for a Tigers team that didn't earn a regional bid, then had a strong summer in the Cape Cod League, where he worked on pitching to both sides of the plate and developing his secondary stuff.
He got off to a good start during his sophomore year, but he struggled in the second half as his mechanics got out of sync, he fell behind in too many counts and had difficulty putting hitters away with two strikes. He finished 5-3, 3.83 with 64 strikeouts in 94 innings as the Tigers lost in a super regional to Stony Brook.
"Pitchers get out of whack, like hitters get in slumps," LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn said. "But I say that, and if you look at the last part of his season, he pitched us into the sixth inning with one run against South Carolina in the (the final game of the regular season, with the SEC title on the line). He pitched in the SEC tournament, gave us six shutout—without his 'A' game. That summarizes Ryan Eades. How are you going to pitch when you don't have your 'A' game? You've got to find a way; he did that last year, and that was experience to take into this year."
Eades took last summer off to clear his mind and work out, even though he said his arm felt great. Mainieri said the 6-foot-3, 198-pound Eades is "a maniac when it comes to conditioning," and he showed up in the fall in outstanding shape. He spent the fall working with Dunn on refining his repertoire.
Eades said he threw a slurvy breaking ball in high school, then threw a curveball and a slider his first two years at LSU.
"I think by throwing those two pitches, it kind of threw off my release point a little bit," Eades said. "Instead of having one dominant put-away pitch, I had two mediocre pitches. I talked with AD after the season and at the beginning of the fall, and he just said, 'We're going to put the slider on the side right now, just work on your curveball. That'll be your put-away pitch.' I just try to get on top of it and throw it with conviction."
His curveball regularly flashes plus, showing sharp downer break and good power, ranging from 75-81 mph. Early this season, he said he pitched mostly with his fastball and curve, but over the last month he has incorporated his 80-81 mph circle changeup more, and that pitch has become an effective weapon against lefties.
He also has developed more confidence in his two-seam fastball, which he can run in on righthanded hitters. It is a nice complement to his explosive four-seamer, which ranges from 90-95 mph.
Dunn said Eades is becoming a more complete pitcher, and he was a rock in the No. 2 starter role for the first eight weeks of this season. He took his first loss at Arkansas in Week Nine, when he did not have his best stuff or command and put too many leadoff men on base. He had another lackluster outing a week later at Alabama, giving up five runs in eight innings, but he bounced back with seven strong innings in a no-decision against South Carolina, allowing just two unearned runs. On the season, Eades is 7-1, 2.30 with 62 strikeouts and 19 walks in 70 innings.
"His stuff is good enough; he's got to throw it in the strike zone," Mainieri said. "I think the kid is going to continue to improve. He's got the body, the arm, he's totally healthy, he's got a great work ethic, and he's got the competitive zeal to him. He probably has to improve his secondary pitches a little bit more and continue to eliminate the mistakes. He still is one of those guys who doesn't give you a lot of clean innings. He gets a lot of runners on base, but to his credit, he kind of raises his game and gets out of it."
That's a testament to his tenacity, which has helped him get through a family tragedy, a major surgery and an up-and-down first two collegiate seasons.
"Ryan Eades is a stud for us, and he's a horse, and we're going to ride him as we go forward," Dunn said. "I know him as a pitcher, he's ready to go, and we're expecting great things from him. I like where he is, and I'm glad he's at LSU."