Jake Hager: Resurgence

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“It’s just a minor setback for a major comeback.”

At least that’s what Durham Bulls infielder Jake Hager told himself.

Surgery on both patellar tendons in your knee and an entire season of rehab is no minor setback, but Hager is already making a major comeback.

Prior to the 2014 season, Hager looked to be on a fast track to the big leagues. Then he noticed a weird feeling in his knees.

“They started acting up, so I got a cortisone shot,” Hager explained. “That felt fine the first couple months in (Double-A) Montgomery, then it started bothering me again.”

Hager played through the injury, tying his career high in games played at 114. He hit .271 and set a career high with 27 doubles for the Montgomery Biscuits.

He had the surgeries before the 2015 season, putting him out for the entire year.

“It was called a Tenex surgery I did first on both of them, and that didn’t work,” Hager said. “So I ended up getting surgery on my right one, and they shot some stem cells into my left one. They both feel great.”

The former first-round pick spent the 2015 season recovering at the team’s facility in Port Charlotte, Florida. He had some company with a few other Rays minor leaguers like Neil Wagner, Johnny Venters and Grayson Garvin rehabbing in Port Charlotte, developing a rehab comradery and getting back to full strength together.

But mentally, surgery can be taxing on a baseball player. Hager would have given anything to be back on the field with his teammates, as was evidenced when he played through the injury in 2014. He developed a routine in rehab to keep his mind sharp and his sights on getting back on the field.

“Every day I went to Starbucks and I’d read,” he said. “I read positive books, mental books to keep me strong and motivated, and keep me going. I took that into physical therapy and rehab, and just got after it. I knew by the end of the process I was going to be back and healthy, and I came back to spring training stronger than I ever have been.”

Hager read books like Brendon Burchard’s “The Charge,” and Jim Afremow’s “The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train and Thrive.” He would start his day early at the baseball field, doing as much rehab work as he was allowed to, then head to the coffee shop in the afternoon and read.

“I feel like a better baseball player mentally and physically,” he said.

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Physically, he has already picked out some big differences.

“When I was going through that season in Montgomery, it hurt to swing, to load on my legs,” Hager said. “When I’d run, I couldn’t stop. I had to slowly gradually stop, but now I’m more explosive. I’m not thinking about it. I can stop hard, it feels great.”

In the infield, that ability to stop and change directions quickly can be the difference between a hit and an out. And in a minor league system like the Rays have, you have to have those defensive skills to be versatile.

“We have a stacked infield, and it’s awesome,” Hager said. “It’s fun to play together. We all know a little different things, we all pick our brains, we have a great time together.”

Hager got to know fellow shortstop Daniel Robertson when Robertson was rehabbing from a wrist injury last season. He got close with Willy Adames, another top prospect who plays shortstop in the Rays system, when the duo played together in Montgomery at the beginning of this season.

Having those three, plus many more great defensive infielders, they each have had to learn new positions.

“I haven’t played any position other than shortstop my whole career,” Hager said. “This whole spring training I played shortstop, then first day in Montgomery, (manager Brady Williams) calls me in the office and says, ‘Hey, you’re playing third today.’ So that’s when I did what I could every day to get comfortable over there, and comfortable over at second base.”

Getting bumped off of his natural position didn’t discourage Hager, though.

“I’m getting comfortable at each position, and when they need me up there, I’ll know how to play,” he said. “It’s only helping me out.”

And being able to see the success moves like this have had in players like Ben Zobrist, and more recently Taylor Motter, Hager knows this is a good thing.

Coming back from his season of rehab, Hager had a strong first two months with Montgomery, batting .240 with 17 RBIs and 10 doubles for the Biscuits. The Rays made a flurry of moves early in June, calling up a couple of infielders and creating a spot Hager could have potentially filled.

He saw he wasn’t in the Montgomery lineup and had been dealing with a bit of a slump, so he wasn’t sure he was being called up. Then he heard a rumor he had been scratched from the initial lineup, but forgot about it cheering on his teammates during the game. After the game, Williams walked into the locker room and let the whole team know Hager was getting called up to Triple-A.

“I was shocked and it was awesome,” Hager said. “It’s been my dream to make it to the big leagues, and I’m one step closer. I’m a phone call away. I worked this whole spring training, this whole offseason, to get up to here. My goal was to be here.”

That recovery and resurgence after his injury has continued in Durham, where he has a .315 batting average with seven of his first 14 games being multi-hit games. He has certainly nailed the “major comeback.”

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