Mike Terry, Deseret Morning News
Jimmy Scholzen of Hurricane reported to Tampa Bay Devils Rays extended spring training Tuesday just two weeks after returning from his LDS Church mission.

Jimmy Scholzen has been on deck for the last two years and now it's time for him to step up to the plate.

Instead of being an LDS missionary who also plays baseball, he's now a baseball player who is a returned missionary.

"I owe a lot to the Devil Rays and I guess it's time to walk the walk and talk the talk," Scholzen said Sunday, less than two weeks after returning from his LDS Church mission to San Francisco (Spanish speaking).

Two years ago, Scholzen, after being drafted by Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the 18th round of the 2004 Amateur Draft, faced the decision of whether to begin his professional baseball career or serve his church.

After telling the Devil Rays he would forgo the baseball opportunity, the Devil Rays countered with the unprecedented move of signing him to a contract and then allowing him to serve. Only one other LDS baseball player — McKay Christensen — has signed a contract before serving.

"We really believe that this guy can play," said Tampa Bay Devil Rays scout Fred Repke shortly after signing Scholzen to the contact two years ago. "We're willing to wait, and we don't think he'll skip a beat (when he returns). He'll be older and more mature when he comes back."

As of 3 p.m. (MDT) Tuesday when he reported for extended spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla., Scholzen began his journey through the minor leagues with the ultimate goal to play in the big leagues with the Devil Rays. First workouts are today.

"It's kind of like I'm getting transferred to Florida and not really coming home," Scholzen said.

Now Scholzen, who was never away from home for more than a month before serving his LDS mission, is experiencing some of the same feelings he had before he left.

"It think it's all the emotions," he said. "You're nervous, you're excited, you're scared."

He'll be rusty, out of shape and two months behind the players who reported in late February, but he's up for the challenge.

"I think it will be just like riding a bike," he said. "Once you get physically in shape it will come back pretty quick."

"That (extended spring) is the perfect environment for him where he can get a lot of work," said Tampa Bay scouting director R.J. Harrison.

While serving in San Francisco during his allotted time each morning he would exercise, while on preparation day he would play catch with his companion (sometimes on the top of a building in downtown San Francisco) and hit baseballs — usually at a battling cage at the home of one of the members of the church.

"It will be a crash course (getting in shape). I had a car my entire mission," he said.

The anticipated changes the Devils Rays expected occurred in Scholzen while he was gone. He's physically bigger (20 pounds heavier), but more importantly, he's mentally stronger.

"Jim has matured a lot," said his father Nick Scholzen. "Mentally, I don't know if he could have taken it (two years ago)."

Now he'll take the mission experience and apply it to baseball and use it to his advantage.

"When you're on your mission or when you do anything, you have to be focused on that one thing," he said. "(Instead of the mission) it's going to be the other way now. The focus is going to be baseball."

Scholzen, who hit .305 with four doubles, a homer and 16 RBIs for Dixie State College in 2005, will stay in extended spring training until mid-June when he'll most likely be assigned to rookie ball in Princeton (W.Va.) of the Appalachian League. He could also get extra training if he earns an invite to the Fall Instructional League.

"The pressure is there, but pressure is there for everyone as well. I'm grateful for this opportunity to do this," he said. "It's awesome to know that I'm able to do this and that the Devil Rays were kind enough to let me."

E-mail: jhinton@desnews.com