By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun
7:44 PM EDT, June 1, 2012
Bobby Lucas Jr. has an out pitch. It's not a 99 mph fastball that makes hitters flail or a nasty curve that causes them to freeze. It's the confidence that comes from having completed his education at George Washington University after being drafted last year by the Washington Nationals.
Lucas, a 24-year-old left-handed pitcher who grew up in Baltimore and played at Calvert Hall, has a dream to pitch in the major leagues. But as he makes his progression from 27th-round longshot to legitimate prospect, Lucas already has Plan B in place.
Not only did Lucas get his undergraduate degree in business, but with the help and understanding of the Nationals, who allowed him to cut short his season last summer in the Gulf Coast rookie league, Lucas was able to finish his master's degree in human organizational learning last month.
"With a lot of players, they come straight out of high school or go to college for a couple of years and if things go bad, they don't have a lot of options when it comes to getting a job," Lucas, now in his first full season with the Class A Hagerstown Suns, said Friday.
"I have so many more options if I get injured or I'm not cutting it. It makes the games that much easier, not having any added pressure that I have to be perfect. It's my dream [to pitch in the big leagues]. I still want to do it. But I am in a great position."
It is something that his parents instilled in him when he was growing up in Northeast Baltimore. Bobby Lucas Sr. said that he and his wife made sure they knew where their only child was at all times. Lauretta Lucas jokes that her son "was more afraid of me than he was of the police."
Education came before sports.
"I felt as a mother it was very important for him to get his education," said Lauretta Lucas, who played basketball at Dunbar. "Playing ball is good and fine. I work with children who say, 'I want to be a professional athlete.' But what happens if it doesn't't happen? We always told him that education was the key and it stuck with him. It was something he wanted to do. He worked very hard."
Lucas understands how fragile his career as a pitcher can be. As a senior at George Washington, Lucas sustained an injury to the radial nerve in his left elbow. His season ended abruptly and it appeared that his baseball career was over.
His dream was revived when Lucas received a medical redshirt from the NCAA. After surgery and rehabilitation, Lucas was able to play one more season as a graduate student. That — along with him being a left-handed pitcher with a pretty good strikeout-to-walk ratio — put him on the Nationals' radar.
"It kind of all came together like a perfect storm," Lucas said. "I couldn't have asked for a better ending."
In reality, it is just beginning for Lucas, and there is still a long way to go. Characterizing himself as a "two-and-a-half-pitch pitcher" who is learning to throw a breaking ball to go along with his fastball and slider, his best pitch, Lucas has been effective coming out of the bullpen for the Suns.
"My first couple of outings, I wouldn't' say I was nervous, but I definitely struggled trying to make sure my mechanics were right and I walked a couple of guys and I felt a little out of synch," Lucas said. "After the first couple of games, I've been very consistent."
But there will be bumps, as Lucas experienced Monday in Greensboro, N.C. After giving up four runs and seven hits while striking out 22 and walking 10 in his first 14 appearances over 16 1/3 innings, Lucas was lit up for six runs — including a grand slam — in a third of an inning.
"It was rough to go through something like that," Lucas said. "I think I had become a little too comfortable the way I was pitching. I came in with a big lead. I learned a lot from that game. I think it was, in a way, a blessing."
Suns pitching coach Franklin Bravo said that Lucas is making the typical transition from college baseball.
"Sometimes with guys coming out of college, they're pitching away from contact," said Bravo, who spent five seasons in the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system and has been a coach for the past nine years. "He's pitching more for contact, and mechanics-wise, he's not pulling off and he's using more of his legs."
Bravo said that being a left-hander with the ability to strike opponents out gives Lucas "a chance to progress … He has the ability. Right now he has to be more consistent."
Even Lucas is realistic to know that being left-handed might be the only reason the Nationals took a chance on a pitcher who had a 7.45 ERA as a starter his final year in college. Despite being 6-4 and 220 pounds, Lucas is more of a finesse pitcher than a power pitcher.
"If I were right-handed, we would not be having this interview," Lucas said with a laugh.
Lucas thinks this season "will tell a lot" about his future. He doesn't believe he will combine his degrees with the game by moving into the front office.
Lucas said that he has met the Nationals' two young stars, pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper. Strasburg was going through rehabilitation last summer after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010 and Harper was down in Florida after being drafted that year.
Though he knows that Strasburg and Harper possess otherworldly talent, Lucas said that being around them has helped feed his own dream.
"It's not as unrealistic, depending on how hard you work and put in the effort, someday you might be doing the same thing they're doing," Lucas said. "Down there I saw a lot of the guys down there to rehab, and you realize that you might have the skills to play in the major leagues. When they're on TV, they seem like superheroes, but when you play with them and talk with them, it gives you a lot of confidence and motivation."
Lucas is not sure how long he will hold onto his dream of playing major league baseball.
"It changes with the day, it changes with the outing," he said with a laugh. "I'd like to say that I'm going to give baseball my best effort. Considering my age, considering the other resources I have, how fast I'm moving and how the organization feels about my progression, it's definitely become more of a wait-and-see attitude. By the time I get to 27, it's going to be the time I sit back and say, 'Is this a reality?'"
If not, Plan B is ready to go.
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