Baseball is not life and death for Bobby Lucas, Jr.
The former Colonials southpaw breezed through his first season as a relief pitcher on the Washington Nationals’ rookie league team this summer, nabbing the team’s top pitching award and racking up statistics that raised scouts’ eyebrows.
But after a six-week peek into life as a minor leaguer on the sun-soaked baseball diamonds of Viera, Fla., Lucas’ offseason is unlike that of most major league prospects.
Instead of spending autumn and winter in professional instructional leagues or prestigious workout facilities, Lucas is back at GW.
“I don’t think that my entire life is riding on one pitch,” Lucas said. “I knew I was coming back to school, and that I was finishing a master's. I knew that my life without baseball was still progressing.”
He is working toward his master’s degree in human and organizational learning, an anomaly in a sport where most players jump into the professional ranks before finishing any kind of degree. But Lucas’ decision to pad his credentials outside of baseball is actually bolstering his confidence on the mound, he said.
Knowing he wants to break into consulting if his baseball career fizzles allows Lucas to throw his knee-buckling slider without fear, he said.
“For a lot of guys who are in the minor leagues, this is it. But I feel like I have a pretty solid plan B,” he said.
In Florida’s Gulf Coast League – the bottom level of teams’ minor leagues systems – Lucas came into his own.
As a Colonial last spring, he racked up strikeouts, but wasn’t always able to solve Atlantic 10 hitters. After signing with the Nationals as their 27th round draft pick in June, he harnessed his pitch command and saw results.
“There’s a lot of confidence that comes along with [being drafted], and it translates on the mound and in practice. You walk with a little different swagger,” Lucas said. “You have that confidence to throw the ball in the zone, and to throw any pitch in any count.”
Colonials head coach Steve Mrowka said Lucas' demeanor and performance blossomed midway through last season, the year after he came off of elbow surgery.
"He was getting fully healthy and reaching his full potential, and he was getting in great shape. He got confidence and was locating his pitches better," Mrowka said.
Under the microscope of professional baseball, where Lucas said coaches, scouts and team coordinators jot down every errant throw and attitude outburst, making a good impression is crucial.
But Lucas’ impressive performance, where he compiled a 1.69 earned run average and fired 29 strikeouts in 21 innings, helped him earn the Nationals’ faith, which he plans on working hard to maintain.
“I try to look at my season as if I got lucky. It keeps me sane and humble that I need to keep working,” he said.
He cut his summer season short by two weeks in order to return to Foggy Bottom to train for his two on-campus jobs – mentoring juniors and seniors as a graduate fellow in Ivory Tower and working for the baseball team as an athletic department administrator.
And he will not fly to Florida for spring training until late April, two weeks after the minor league teams have already begun their seasons.
“It definitely isn’t ideal, but the Nationals were very understanding in letting me do it. They didn’t make me feel uncomfortable about it or give me an ultimatum,” Lucas said. “They said they understand, and it helped at the time that I was pitching well. Doing this was a lot easier than if I had a 10.00 ERA.”
Lucas will likely pitch for one of the Nationals’ Single A teams next season in Auburn, N.Y. or Hagerstown, Md. Nationals coaches and team coordinators did not respond to requests for comment.
Although he pitched under no bright lights or majestic stadiums during his minor league summer, he still got a glimpse of the major leagues.
He rubbed elbows – both of which were now healthy after undergoing surgery in his undergraduate career – with Washington’s big-league star Stephen Strasburg, who sat only a few lockers down from Lucas while the right-handed fireballer was rehabbing from reconstructive elbow surgery.
“I’m not saying that we’re the same pitcher at all but it gave me a sense that I could make it if I worked hard enough and if things work out,” Lucas said. “He’s normal. I saw him out at WalMart one day.”
Lucas hopes to eventually share a spot on the Nationals pitching staff with Strasburg and pitch alongside fellow GW alumni – relievers Pat Lehman and Josh Wilkie – who are surging through Washington’s minor league system.
“This could change my life in a very positive way if it all works out. But if it doesn’t, I’ll fall on my feet and I’ll be fine,” Lucas said. “I think I have the talent and the potential to be in the big leagues. Will I? To be determined.”