Jacob Melton didn’t spend last summer on the Cape or in the Northwoods. The dynamic Oregon State outfielder may have ventured to a cape and spent much of the summer in the woods alright, but that would be the cape of a river in the Willamette Valley on the opposite coast of the prestigious Cape Cod League.
Instead of chasing down flies in a summer league outfield, the sweet-swinging 6-foot-3 lefty was using flies to net his next catch, spending five or six days a week fly fishing in Oregon. He was relegated to partaking in one of his favorite hobbies after shoulder surgery to repair his labrum in May ended his 2021 season and sidelined him for the next seven months.
“As soon as I got out of the sling, I was all for [fishing],” Melton said with a grin. “I didn’t have much else to do other than [physical therapy] and rehab, so I had a lot of time to kill over the summer.”
There were a lot of hours alone with just the soundtrack of the babbling brook and wind gently rustling leaves as it danced through the trees. Melton spent those quiet times occasionally analyzing his breakout campaign where he hit .404, 6, 25 in 99 at-bats and helped push Oregon State to a 26-11 start only to watch his injury effectively derail the Beavers’ season.
They lost five of their final six regular-season series and fell in the regional championship at Dallas Baptist, going 11-13 after Melton was shut down. He spent time wondering what could have been, but more often, Melton used his solitude in nature to self reflect and try to better himself as a person.
“This past summer it was definitely tough with the injury, but I appreciate it. Just kind of realized where my feet are at and to enjoy all of it,” Melton said. “It was good in different aspects. Obviously, I would have loved to been able to play over the summer and finish out last season, but I think the way it worked out definitely allowed me to grow as a person and be ready to go this year.”
He came into this season playing not only for himself, but now as one of the older guys on the roster, he felt he owed it to the team’s younger players to be a leader, to play with confidence and to give an emulatable example each time he steps into the box. But first Melton had to get back in the batter’s box. He wasn’t able to do much in the fall, particularly with the bat. He basically had the time from when the team returned to campus after the winter break until opening day to try to rebuild his swing step by step.
“I had a six-week buildup to be able to swing at 100 percent,” he said. “It was really just a struggle to not build any bad habits in that time. I was really just working on the small pieces and ensuring that I was making the small moves right and doing everything right during the buildup to being full go.”
Since getting the full-go clearance, there’s been no stopping Melton.
Opponents have tried just about everything, only to see good pitches lined for base hits and mistakes banged off or over the wall. Melton picked up right where his 2021 season concluded and added more extra-base power with fewer strikeouts. He began the season with a ridiculous streak. Melton opened his fourth-year junior campaign with at least one hit and one run knocked home in each of the first 17 games. He also scored at least one run in 15 of the 17 games.
Melton has already surpassed last season’s numbers, hitting .385, 9, 41 in essentially the same number of at-bats while cutting his strikeout rate more than 10 percent. He drove in three more runs on Wednesday in a 9-8 win at Nevada, including bringing home the go-ahead run on a deep sacrifice fly in the top of the ninth inning to push the No. 3 Beavers to 19-5 on the season.
“He’s continued to make adjustments and get better and better,” Oregon State third-year head coach Mitch Canham said. “He’s got a ton of power and extremely mobile and athletic and he’s fighting with two strikes and shooting baseballs the other way on a line or leaving the house.
“He can leave the house to any part of the field, can drive singles to any part of the field and then something we haven’t seen him do a whole lot this year is he can put the ball on the ground via bunt and end up on first, but then next thing you know, he’s getting a double out of it because he’s swiping second. He’s got every tool there is and his heart is one of the biggest ones.”
Melton is fourth in the nation in RBIs. He leads the Pac-12 in that category as well as slugging percentage and total bases. He’s second in the conference in hits, home runs and runs while his eight stolen bases are fourth in the league. His offensive impact has been immense, but he’s made an even bigger impact in the locker room helping Canham build the culture that was so important to the championship Oregon State teams of the past two decades.
“He’s a big pillar in this group,” Canham said. “His work ethic, his attitude, his determination, his energy, his confidence. I mean, everything that he does spreads to the rest of the group. He loves his family and this family loves him. There’s not a person in the world that doesn’t get excited watching him walk up to the plate and go to work.”
Opposing pitchers and coaches may disagree with that final statement, but there is definitely a rise in anticipation for the Beavers seeing Melton stroll to the plate to take his left-handed hacks. They have seen him do his “lonely work,” as Canham calls it. The on-your-own, away-from-practice, before and after extra swings in the cage, ground balls taken, towel drills or tee work. Except what might have once been lonely or perhaps partner work between Melton and Wade Meckler often has an audience nowadays.
“Last year, Wade and I pretty much had free rein to the cages. This year, it’s kind of been a struggle to make it in there and get a cage sometimes,” Melton said. “It’s pretty much five or six nights a week we’re up there and there is somebody up there with us every time. It’s really cool to see. It’s a good culture. It’s something we want to build upon and leave here for sure. It’s just the willingness to put in extra work and do whatever you need to better yourself and put yourself in a spot to be ready to perform.
“I think that’s where a lot of our success comes from is just everybody on the roster has put in a lot of hours from our pitching staff, all of our hitters have put in so much extra work to really be in a position to perform on the field.”
Melton has always been a hard worker and the results have followed. He was a two-time first-team All-State in high school hitting .453, 9, 27 as a junior and .513, 8, 28 his senior year, stealing a combined 55 bases his final two years at South Medford (Ore.). He made the All-Northwest Conference first team in his lone season at Linn-Benton CC, hitting .365, 3, 39 with 16 stolen bases. But for the kid that dreamed of wearing the orange and black and says he would be at Oregon State even if he didn’t play baseball (in large part because of his fisheries and wildlife sciences major), his first season was more of a nightmare.
He struck out in his only at-bat on opening day. He went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts in his first career start. He got his first and only hit of the season after entering as a defensive replacement in a blowout. Melton then struck out three more times in his final five at-bats over the next 10 days before the 2020 season became the 2020 season. The campaign was shuttered due to the Covid-19 pandemic with the Beavers sitting on a five-game losing streak and a 5-9 record. Melton finished 1 for 11 with six strikeouts. It became the driving force for the player he has become.
“I didn’t prove anything in 2020 and obviously there needed to be some changes to what I do at the plate,” Melton said. “There wasn’t a lot of confidence, hard to get confidence from 1 for 11 with six strikeouts, but I just used that as fuel to get better and that was motivation to go hit every night, so I’m honestly kind of thankful that season worked out the way it did. Otherwise, I don’t know if I’d have the same motivation to work and do all the same stuff that I do now.”