By BRYAN LEVINE
PORT CHARLOTTE — Jeff Walters has been drafted so many times he doesn’t even remember all of them.
The right-handed pitcher was selected in the MLB Amateur Draft for the fifth time by the New York Mets in 2010, but by then, he became the boy who cried draft pick to his friends.
“I may not have gotten as many texts and phones calls by the fifth time, but the fifth time was the most special,” Walters, now with the Tampa Bay Rays, said prior to Friday’s game against the Detroit Tigers.
“Actually, the fifth time was the best time for me because I knew I was signing. It was just me and my dad hanging out in the living room. We knew that was it. College was over and it was time to start your pro career.”
Professional baseball came knocking on Walters’ door for the first time after he was a senior at Olympia High School in Orlando. The San Francisco Giants selected him in the 24th round in 2006, but rather than going pro, he elected to attend St. Petersburg Community College.
“Since I went to a JUCO, I could’ve signed with the Giants up to a week before the next year’s draft,” Walters said. “That was really appealing to me. That’s why I picked a JUCO over a four-year school.”
After not having the greatest of seasons his freshman year, he fell to the 47th round of the 2007 draft to the Washington Nationals.
Walters elected to remain in St. Petersburg, and around the time the Cleveland Indians selected him in the 30th round of the 2008 draft, he was offered a scholarship to play for the University of Georgia.
“That was one of my dreams growing up,” he said. “I was big on the college experience. I really wanted to get an education, have some fun, and see if I could pitch against the big boys of the SEC.”
He headed up to Georgia, where he majored in consumer economics.
With the Bulldogs his junior year, Walters went 2-0 with 4.64 ERA in 27 appearances — 25 out of the bullpen. Then, once again, his name was called on draft day in 2008. This time, it was with the Baltimore Orioles in the 17th round.
Again, he declined, but the decision was a little tougher this time.
“I was really, really close to signing, but the college brought me back,” Walters said. “I still thought I could do better (than the 17th round). I really wanted to be a starter, and I don’t regret any of it. It was a fun ride.”
He was right. After a season as a starter, the Mets came calling, and took him in the seventh round.
Although he wanted to be a starter, he soon learned that was not likely.
“Starting didn’t work out in pro ball. I figured that out pretty quick,” Walters said. “The move to the bullpen saved my career. I bumped up my velocity a little bit, sharpened up all my stuff. Then 2013 was a fun year for everyone involved.”
It was in that 2013 season where Walters experienced his best professional success. With Double-A Binghamton Mets, Walters led the entire Eastern League with 38 saves, was named to the all-star team and also shared organization MVP honors with Noah Syndergaard.
Walters was poised to fill one of the bullpen spots for the Mets in the big leagues in 2014, but he was stung by the injury bug.
“I ended up hurting myself in spring, and tried to fight through it,” Walters said. “I went about a month into the season before I said something, and then eventually went and got an MRI and needed Tommy John (surgery).”
Walters, now 29, signed with the Rays in the offseason, and joined one very familiar face in the clubhouse, childhood friend Brad Miller.
Both Miller and Walters still live during the offseason in the same neighborhoods they did as kids.
“It’s really cool and I’m excited,” Miller said. “We haven’t played together since we were in high school. We played Little League together, we play catch in the offseason together. I’m excited for him and glad I get to be reunited with him.”
So far this spring, Walters had appeared in three games, tossing 2.2 innings, with three strikeouts and a save. In Thursday’s blowout loss against the Red Sox, Walters was the only Rays pitcher to not allow a run.