For the past three years, Drake Kelley has been one of the most feared hitters in the state of Wyoming.
He’s the heavy-handed slugger with a propensity to make opposing pitchers pay. The veteran Roughrider with a well-trained eye and knack for turning every at-bat into a battle. The physical specimen who led Gillette with 10 home runs last year.
But for the first time in his life, Kelley came into the baseball season less than 100 percent.
The college freshman suffered a back injury last September while playing for Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College, which forced him to sit out the season and kept away from physical activity for seven months.
“I definitely missed it,” he said. “I played a lot of baseball video games.”
During that stretch, the southpaw had to fight just to stay in shape.
The 19-year-old couldn’t take his cuts in the batting cage.
The back injury, which he suffered while over swinging at a pitch, sent shots of pain throughout his body anytime he tried to take at swing.
When Kelley came back from Arizona in May, he wasn’t the same hitter that pitchers have come to fear. His swing lacked its trademark pop and his decision-making at the plate wasn’t as sound as in years past.
But coach Nate Perleberg knew it was a matter of time before the old Kelley came back.
“Even someone as talented as he is, it’s going to take some time to get into baseball shape,” Perleberg said.
Once his muscles stopped tensing up, Kelley went back to doing all the things that make him a great athlete.
He went back to lifting weights, continued to run and worked fervently in the batting cage. In time, Kelley started to get regain some of that power.
“For me, swinging a baseball bat is just like riding a bike,” he said.
All the hard work started to show itself during a trip to Omaha, Neb., in June.
“We could start to see the swing was getting back to normal and on the mound he looked good and just looked pain free,” Perleberg said.
He went 6-for-12 at the plate with three RBI during a four-game stretch. Things continued to improve from there.
Kelley didn’t put up the numbers he wanted during a late June tournament in Billings, Mont., but felt his time was coming.
During the Hladky Tournament in Gillette, Kelley — who usually bats in the No. 2 position — went 7-for-15 with five RBI.
His resurgence was complete, he said, during Gillette’s trip to Boise, Idaho, in early July.
Kelley opened the tournament 3-for-3 at the plate with three RBI. He finished 11-for-21 with seven RBI.
Perleberg is happy to have the slugger back. He is also an emotional leader on the American Legion squad.
“He believes that he’s the best on the field and he’s not intimidated by teams,” Perleberg said. If our team can get that same mind-set of not caring who we’re playing against ... hopefully that rubs off on us.”
Through the season, Kelley’s got an OPS of 1.008 and a .536 slugging percentage, both second best on the team behind Westin Hinkel (1.014 and .541, respectively).
Kelley’s resurgence bodes well for the ’Riders (42-20 overall), who will make another run at the state tournament Aug. 1 in Casper.
But the journey back to prominence was a battle in itself.
“It was a lot of physical effort and a lot of early mornings, but it’s starting to pay off right now,” he said.