The staph infection took its toll. It probably stemmed from a session in the hot tub, and it probably started in his left leg. But before long, D.J. Wallace felt sharp pains from the end of his legs to the back of his neck.
“I don’t know how bad it was. I’m not a doctor,” Southern baseball coach Roger Cador said. “But it must have been bad, because D.J. is like most young people; he wanted to play.”
As the freshman right fielder waited to heal, he watched his teammates stagger through an ugly three-week stretch in March.
Wallace returned for one game at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, where promptly suffered a hand injury.
He wanted to come back quickly, but Cador was concerned. What if Wallace wasn’t ready? What if he overcompensated, and, in the process, developed bad habits at the plate?
As it turned out, assistant coach Fernando Puebla had the right answer.
“Play him anyway,” Puebla said.
Cador took the advice. Wallace was happy he did, and the Jaguars were better for it.
With a free and easy approach in the batter’s box, Wallace has ripped opposing pitchers over the past 13 games, hitting .551 in his last 49 at-bats, with seven homers, 14 runs and 25 RBIs.
Along the way, Southern went from lukewarm to piping hot. The Jaguars have won 11 in a row.
At 1 p.m. Saturday, on the road against Jackson State (28-12), they’ll try to make it a dozen.
Southern (26-14) faces JSU this weekend in their annual two-game home-and-home series, which concludes at 1 p.m. Sunday back at Lee-Hines Field.
These games don’t count in the Southwestern Athletic Conference standings, but they will certainly serve as a great measuring stick for both teams.
SU leads the Western Division, while Jackson State has already clinched the Eastern Division title.
As Jaguars catcher Clint Ourso put it during a post-practice huddle this week: “We’re No. 1 on our side. They’re No. 1 on their side. Who’s going to be No. 1 overall?”
Meanwhile, Wallace has earned his reputation as one of the hottest hitters in the SWAC.
“I feel like, physically, I have just as much ability as most guys out there,” Wallace said. “But it’s all about my mental toughness, and how I can go about playing the game with confidence — just knowing that I can perform to the standards that (Cador) sets for me and everybody else wants me to play up to.”
So who, exactly, is this guy?
First, there’s the name. Wallace’s first name is actually Stephen; that’s how he’s listed on the roster and in box scores. But his middle name is Dajon, and when he was a wee lad in Covina, Calif., his parents shortened “Dajon” and turned it into a nickname: “D.J.”
It stuck. As a youngster, most of Wallace’s friends never knew his first name.
These days, he serves as a testament to Major League Baseball’s investment in the Urban Youth Academy in Compton.
He often practiced there, working out with former Dodgers outfielder Ken Landreaux.
“(Landreaux) put the stamp on him,” Cador said. “He said, ‘This guy needs some work, but he has the skills.’ ”
From 2008-11, Southern opened each season in Compton as part of the MLB Urban Invitational, and Wallace’s family knew it. They contacted Cador through Facebook and set up a time to meet.
Cador and Puebla liked what they saw in Wallace.
He redshirted last season, partly because he had tendonitis in his right arm.
He has suffered a few more minor injuries this season.
Right now, however, he’s hot. So are the Jaguars.
“How can I help my team win? That’s my attitude,” he said. “I feel like that’s the attitude we all have, and that’s the reason we’re doing so well now as a family.”
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