ST. LOUIS – When the Texas Rangers picked Nick Tepesch to be their fifth starting pitcher, two responses followed.
Casual MLB fans said: “Who?”
And those familiar with Mizzou said: “Hmmm.”
Tepesch, the former Tigers pitcher who is scheduled to take the mound for the Rangers’ April 9th game against the Rays, is OK with that reaction. He’s had to prove himself before, and he has quietly done so ever since he learned to trust his stuff. Now, as long as a Triple-A start on Thursday goes well, he will get a chance to do it all over again — this time at baseball’s highest level.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” the 24-year-old said by phone this week. “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind.”
Missouri baseball coach Tim Jamieson had no doubt Tepesch could get here. The hard part was convincing the kid from Blue Springs High School to see it, too. Tepesch was a 6-foot-4, right-handed pitcher who wanted to get better. But he struggled to realize he was already pretty good.
“He was always very physically blessed, along the lines of the other guys that have made it for us,” Jamieson said recently. “They all had the same work ethic and passion, the things that are necessary to grow. But he was just a little bit of a late bloomer. It took him a little longer to start pitching with confidence.”
Jamieson’s team has had some powerful arms in recent years, guys like Max Scherzer (Detroit Tigers), Aaron Crow (Kansas City Royals) and Kyle Gibson (currently with the Minnesota Twins’ Triple-A affiliate). These pitchers had no shortage of confidence in college. But Tepesch, a player heralded as the next big arm in a lineage of Mizzou aces, didn’t arrive with the same self-assuredness.
“He didn’t have the swagger that Max had from day one, that Crowe had from day one,” Jamieson said. “Nick had to find out how good he was. It just took him a little longer to mature.”
Tepesch pitched in 22 games as a freshman, mostly as a closer, before switching to starter late in the year. His sophomore season, he started 14 games and finished with a 6.27 ERA.
“He had to learn to believe in himself and trust what he was capable of doing,” Jamieson said of the early struggles. “He was always prepared and organized, but it took him a while to believe. As his confidence grew, you saw him take off.”
Things clicked his junior season. A more-confident Tepesch had developed a workmanlike attitude on the mound. One bad pitch didn’t fluster him. He simply moved on to the next. He attacked batters and commanded the strike zone. It’s the same approach he uses today.
“What’s the most important pitch?” he said. “The next one. Stay in the present, and don’t worry about the past. Be in the moment, and focus on the pitch at hand.”
In 15 starts as a junior, he was 6-6 with a 4.19 ERA. MLB scouts noticed, and their interest made Jamieson realize he — along with Mizzou baseball fans — wouldn’t get a chance to see the strides Tepesch could make as a senior.
Instead, the late bloomer was gone after the Rangers selected him in the 14th round in 2010. This time, his start was far from slow.
Tepesch cruised through his first minor league season with the Class A Hickory Crawdads, posting a 4.03 ERA in 138 1/3 innings pitched.
He split the following 2012 season between the Rangers’ Class A advanced and Double-A teams, where he pitched 162 innings and finished with a record of 11-6. His ERA was 3.67 — its lowest point since he was a high school senior.
Then, in February, he attended Rangers spring training as a non-roster invitee and left with the fifth spot in the rotation.
Now, it’s up to him to hold it.
The Rangers currently have multiple injuries on its pitching staff. As those players improve, Tepesch could be sent down. The thought of it might have shaken him before.
But not anymore.
“I’ve got to stick to who I am as a pitcher,” he said. “I’m not trying to do anything different.”
There’s a certainty in his voice when he says it. Tepesch has found his confidence, and he plans on bringing it with him to baseball’s biggest stage.