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Undrafted And Overlooked, Kevin Stevens Plays With A Chip On His Shoulder

June 13, 2024

Bridgewater, NJ - On May 25, 2022, in Mesa, AZ, The University of Texas - Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros were gearing up for the opening game of the Western Athletic Conference Championship against Sacramento State. The team bus was set to depart their hotel at 7 AM ahead of a

Bridgewater, NJ - On May 25, 2022, in Mesa, AZ, The University of Texas - Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros were gearing up for the opening game of the Western Athletic Conference Championship against Sacramento State. The team bus was set to depart their hotel at 7 AM ahead of a 9 AM first pitch. However, their ace pitcher, Kevin Stevens, was nowhere to be found.

“Somebody grab Kev,” UTRGV Head Coach Derek Matlock called out. Everyone on the team knew exactly where Stevens was. Not sleeping, but in the hotel gym, where he had been since 5:30 AM working out.

Stevens pitched eight innings of one-run ball with 12 strikeouts to secure the win for the Vaqueros in the biggest game of the year.

“That’s just his makeup,” Coach Matlock explained. “He’s a bulldog. He wants to compete.”

Stevens’ journey has been one of relentless competition and overcoming adversity. His career has been riddled with injuries that many believed would prevent him from ever advancing to the next level.

A partially torn UCL paired with a hyperextended elbow limited Stevens to only five appearances over his final two seasons at Cienega High School in his hometown of Tucson, AZ. With little footage for college scouts and minimal interest from colleges, the right-hander committed to Yavapai Junior College in Prescott, AZ. However, shoulder tendinitis wiped out his freshman year, and he lost his scholarship, spending the spring semester on the sidelines.

When he finally returned to the mound, Stevens went 1-1 with a 5.40 ERA, striking out 11 in only 13.1 innings during his redshirt freshman year at Yavapai. He only received one offer to continue his baseball career, from Judson University in Illinois, a school of 800 students. Two weeks before heading to campus, the injury bug struck again—this time, a fully torn UCL requiring Tommy John surgery.

Frustrated by the cycle of injuries and rehab, sitting on metal benches across the southwest, Stevens took a different path. He did not attend any school in the 2018-19 academic year, instead working at a golf club in Tucson.

“I was bringing the carts out, cleaning carts, running around the course, pretty much doing whatever they needed me to,” Stevens said. He woke up at 3 AM daily, worked at the golf course until noon, did his rehab, and went to the gym.

Despite his vigorous preparation and recovery efforts, Stevens had no school to pitch for the following season.

“I probably emailed every single college you can think of, and if the coach had a phone number online, I probably texted it,” said Stevens.

Zero responses.

Finally, one May morning in 2019, he got a call from Coach Matlock of UTRGV.

“What time are you throwing today?” Matlock asked. When Stevens answered, Matlock replied, “Send me the address, I’ll be there.”

Matlock drove two hours from Mesa, where UTRGV was playing in the WAC playoffs, to Tucson to watch Stevens pitch. Although Stevens was only eight months post-Tommy John surgery and barely hitting 82 MPH, Matlock saw potential.

“I saw his body, his arm action, the way he talked,” Matlock recalled. “I just saw something about him. I thought, this guy is going to be healthy, and I’m going to take a chance.”

The 6-2, 225 lb Stevens joined UTRGV as a walk-on and left as a scholarship athlete and one of the best pitchers in school history thanks to his dedication to his craft, and a vigorous workout regiment. “The weight room changed his life,” Matlock said. “He was a chubby little kid, then bought into the weight room and nutrition.”

Early in his time at UTRGV, Stevens confidently walked up to Coach Matlock and told him that he’d be the Friday night ace for the Vaqueros, overtaking the role from a tenured senior. In the months leading up to opening day, Stevens would remind Matlock after each bullpen session, “I’m your guy.”

“Slow down cowboy, slow down. It aint that easy,” Matlock recalled barking back at Stevens in his thick, raspy southern accent.

But Stevens’ hard work on and off the field earned him the role of the team’s Friday night starter. In his Vaqueros debut against Kansas State on opening night 2020, he threw five no-hit innings and earned the win.

Over his three seasons at UTRGV, Stevens posted a 2.99 ERA in 195.1 innings with 228 strikeouts, which rank sixth in program history. He led the Vaqueros to consecutive WAC tournament berths and was twice named 1st Team All-WAC. Despite his achievements, Stevens watched rounds one through 20 come and go without being selected in the 2022 MLB Draft.

Disappointed, and even shocked that he did not hear his name called, Stevens had his bags packed and a contract lined up to join a team in the Mexican League. However, just before departing, he received a call from Brian Rhees, the New York Yankees area scout who covers Southern Texas, offering him a free-agent deal. Stevens shaved off his shaggy beard with flowing dirty blonde locks and reported to the Yankees Player Development Complex in Tampa, FL. Over five appearances between the rookie-level FCL Yankees and Class-A Tampa Tarpons to end the season, he threw 4.2 innings allowing four earned runs with four strikeouts.

As the offseason came around, Stevens remained hungry.

“That offseason was the first time I touched 100 MPH,” Stevens recalled. “It was a three-week span where I went from 93 to 95, then 97, and finally hit 100 MPH.”

Stevens entered 2023 spring training in the best shape of his life, featuring an upper-90s fastball and a sharp upper-80s slider, pitching with an approach which he describes as “you know it's coming, good luck hitting it.”

However, the third UCL tear of his career, this time a partial tear, occurred just before the conclusion of spring training, sidelining him until the end of summer. By the time he was ready to pitch, the minor league season had ended. Therefore, Stevens was shipped to the Arizona Fall League, where he posted a 2.25 ERA with 10 strikeouts over 7.1 innings for the Mesa Solar Sox.

“When I came back from this last injury, it was like, ok, here’s some juice. Now we’re getting going again,” said Stevens, who returned to his ways of throwing triple-digit heat.

Despite limited professional experience, the Yankees assigned Stevens to Double-A Somerset to begin the 2024 season, where he’s been one of the top pitchers in the Eastern League. Over 16 appearances, the right-hander has posted a 2.66 ERA with 30 K in 20.1 IP, failing to yield a run over his last 13 outings as of June 13.

“To be able to not just hold his own, but to dominate… after all he’s been through, all the work he’s put in is really exciting,” said Yankees Senior Director of Pitching Sam Briend.

Stevens, fueled by his experiences overcoming adversity, remains focused on his ultimate goal. “I have a huge chip on my shoulder… Everything I’ve been through fires me up. Being able to look back and then see where I’m at now is something I’m really grateful for because it made me who I am… but Double-A is not the end goal.”

“He’s locked in. He’s got one goal right now, and that’s to find a way to the big leagues. If you put a goal in front of him, he’s gonna go get it,” said Matlock. “That’s just who he is.”