By STEVE KRAH
Jake Kelzer casts a pretty imposing figure on a pitching mound.
At 6-foot-7 and close to 250 pounds, he looks like he means business when he comes out of the bullpen late in a game.
As a right-hander in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, he plays with intensity and swagger.
But it wasn’t always that way for the Bloomington, Ind., native.
Kelzer recalls being a freshman swimmer at Bloomington High School South.
“I was not really that good,” says Kelzer, who is now 24. “I was tall and lanky and skin and bones. I was 6-6 and maybe 160. That’s pretty skinny for someone that tall.”
With time, Kelzer filled out his frame.
With encouragement from his coaches, he became a fierce competitor — no matter the sport. He swam and played baseball at South for four years and football for his first three.
He gained even more confidence when he was allowed to pursue the mound and the pool at Indiana University.
Kelzer was a two-time high school All-American swimmer. He was a part of state championship relay teams (200 freestyle in 2011 and 2012 and 400 freestyle in 2012) and placed fifth in the 50 freestyle (2012) while helping Bloomington to runner-up finishes in his junior and senior seasons.
Kyle Ruth was the Panthers head coach in Kelzer’s sophomore and junior seasons. Kirk Grand was an assistant in 2010-11 and head coach in 2011-12.
“Swimming is a sport where you stare at a line at the bottom of a pool,” says Kelzer of Ruth and Grand. “They were young and brought new styles and techniques. They kept things really exciting and competitive among the swimmers.”
As a South baseball player, Kelzer was impacted by head coach Phil Kluesner.
“He taught me the basics of baseball and how to compete,” says Kelzer. “You have to battle from the beginning to the end of the game. (Kluesner) brought the intensity every single day. It got pass down to all of his players.”
Kelzer went to IU with the idea of swimming and playing baseball.
“I was going to give it a shot for first two years and juggle both,” says Kelzer. “It happened I picked (baseball) my sophomore year.”
When then-Hoosiers head baseball coach Tracy Smith opted to redshirt him as a freshman, he was able to concentrate on swimming. He did that for one season.
“I look back at it now and was a genius idea,” says Kelzer. “It was really smart move on (Smith’s) part. It gave me another year of leverage. I had that experience of being a college athlete for a year with swimming.”
While Smith’s team was moving toward a 2013 College World Series appearance, Kelzer was learning lessons in the water in a program led by Ray Looze.
“He really knows his stuff,” says Kelzer of Looze. “He knows how to push each individual swimmer to their absolute limits.”
Baseball came back into Kelzer’s life his second year in college. He went on to pitched three seasons at Indiana (2014-16), going 8-10 with eight saves and a 3.09 earned run average.
He made 25 mound appearances (all in relief) in 2014, 17 (11 starts) in 2015 and 22 (all in relief) in 2016. He threw a total of 145 2/3 innings with 149 strikeouts and 52 walks.
Smith put Kelzer in a starting role at the beginning of the season when Kyle Hart was not yet available after having Tommy John surgery.
Before Smith and Brandon Higelin left after the 2014 season to become head coach and pitching coach at Arizona State University, they imparted wisdom to Kelzer.
“Tracy is a really, really good coach,” says Kelzer. “He’s not just coach, he’s a teacher.
“It was a bigger learning curve with Higgy. I had not pitched for a year so I was that piece of clay he was able to mold into any pitcher he wanted me to be.”
Higelin is now director of baseball operations at the University of Arizona.
Chris Lemonis came on as Hoosiers head baseball coach and brought Kyle Bunn on as pitching coach, beginning in 2015.
Kelzer credits Lemonis for helping him form the mindset of a dominant pitcher.
“If you’re team scores you some runs, you go out there and have shutdown innings,” says Kelzer. “You have to have that fearless attitude and that swagger. You act like you belong out there. (Lemonis) gave me the confidence to own up to my responsibilities on the mound.
“Bunn took (the mold started by Higelin) and helped me be what would be best for me.”
All the while, Kelzer listened and put his knowledge into action.
“I like to think I was a very coachable athlete,” says Kelzer. “I was able to hone in on what the coaches were saying. That was one of the key reasons I was able to compete at such a high level in two sports.
“And there’s always that God-given talent of being 6-foot-7.”
Since he was past 21, Kelzer draft eligible after his first two collegiate seasons. He was picked in the 22nd round of the 2014 draft by the New York Yankees and in the 14th round of the 2015 draft by the Chicago Cubs, but opted to go back to school each time.
The first time he passed on pro ball, he was just getting back into the game.
“I needed to develop as a person,” says Kelzer. “I was still pretty young. I was 21.”
The second time, he wanted to prove he could have a better college season.
Kelzer selected in the 18th round of the 2016 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Phillies.
The big righty spent parts of 2016 and 2017 with the Williamsport (Pa.) Crosscutters in the short-season New York-Penn League and finished the 2017 season with the Low Class-A Lakewood (N.J.) BlueClaws.
To date, Kelzer has made 32 appearances (all in relief) and is 2-2 with three saves. He has 43 strikeouts and 18 walks in 42 1/3 innings with a 4.89 ERA.
While starters have a routine leading up to their next appearance, relievers have to always be ready to go.
“You have no idea when you’re going to be throwing,” says Kelzer. “You have to be 100 percent focused every single game.”
The youngest of Tom and Roberta Kelzer’s three children after Sarah and Hannah, Jake grew up playing many sports. He started playing baseball as a little kid, but his only travel baseball year was at 15.
“Dad never wanted me to get worn out or sick of the game,” says Kelzer. “Looking back at it it was beneficial to my career in baseball.”
With an eye on his long-term future, Kelzer is to graduate Dec. 16 with a Business Management degree from the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
“I like where that management can take me,” says Kelzer. “I like that leadership role and that competitive feeling.”
Having his schooling complete also gives the reliever a sense of relief.
“It’s always nice to have that lifted off your shoulders so you can focus on baseball,” says Kelzer. “That’s going to be my life after this weekend. That’s going to be a great feeling.”
Before heading to Florida for spring training, Kelzer has been working out at IU.
“Lemonis opens up everything to us,” says Kelzer, who is reunited with strength and conditioning coach Will Alli. “It’s something cool IU does for its returning athletes. Many have to go out and join a gym. I’m extremely blessed with that.”
Kelzer goes through a program set up by the Phillies and Alli adds in his exercises.
“It’s about staying active and healthy,” says Kelzer. “Show up at spring training and be able to crush everything. That’s the main goal.”
Jake Kelzer, a 2012 Bloomington High School South graduate, helped win state titles as a swimmer and was good enough in both sports to swim and play baseball at Indiana University. He started his pro career in the Philadelphia Phillies system in 2016. (Lakewood BlueClaws Photo)