ARLINGTON, Texas — When Yu Darvish faces the Seattle Mariners tonight, the Texas Rangers are liable to draw 10 times more people than live in Lucas Luetge’s hometown.
That would be Bellville, Texas, where the left-hander was an All-State selection as a pitcher in a state that worships football.
“I had my dreams, but in a town of (3,800) a lot of people didn’t even know I played baseball” Luetge said. “Lacie didn’t.”
Ah, that would be high school sweetheart Lacie.
“Lacie and I have been together since my junior year in high school, and she stuck with me through college and the minor leagues,” he said. “We got married in January.”
That was one month after the Mariners selected Luetge from the Milwaukee Brewers in the Rule 5 draft, a move that instantly changed his career.
“It was great news. It meant someone was interested in me, someone wanted me and here I am, which made it really great news,” Luetge said.
“(Mariners general manager) Jack (Zduriencik) called me that afternoon and we talked a little. He’d drafted me when he was in Milwaukee. He said I’d get the chance to compete.
“The Rule 5 draft automatically meant I was on the 40-man roster and had to be carried on the 25-man roster to stay. I’d never been on either, and I’d never been to a big league camp,” he said.
Managers are notoriously leery of carrying a Rule 5 player, because virtually all of them are players with no big-league experience.
Still, Luetge is in Seattle’s bullpen for the simplest of reasons. The team wanted him there.
“We liked his left-on-left breaking ball, and the fact it had great shape and he had a feel for it,” pitching coach Carl Willis said. “He listens, he pitched well and he’s the kind of pitcher who fits now and fits even better in the future.”
Luetge, 25, faced his first major league hitter in Oakland on Saturday, and struck him out with three pitches.
How far has he come this spring? Ask him about his first intra-squad action.
“My first game, I can’t lie – I couldn’t feel my legs,” Luetge said. “I gave up a run but could have given up four. After that, I said ‘I’m going to throw strikes and whatever happens happens, but I’m not walking anybody.’ ”
In 72/3 Cactus League innings, Luetge walked one batter – and struck out 11. Left-handers couldn’t do a thing with him, which has been the case throughout his minor league career.
The transition from a half season at Double-A to the big leagues is a work in progress.
“What’s it been like? I’ve never been in a big stadium before, never stayed in hotels like we stay in,” Luetge said. “In the minors, you grabbed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before a game.
“Here? You can get stir fry, ribs, anything. I might actually be able to gain a little weight here.”
The transition has gone both ways. Stadium announcers have had trouble with his name, often butchering the pronunciation (LIT-key). Luetge will accept ‘lit-gee’ or even ‘loot-gee.’
“I’ve heard it pronounced ‘Ludge’ and ‘let-e-gee.’ I wonder if they’re even trying, sometimes,” Luitge said.
Though the 6-foot-4, 205-pound pitcher comes across as shy, he doesn’t lack confidence. Given the size of his hometown and the odds against making it to the major leagues from there, he couldn’t.
“Did I think I could make the team? You always think you can – if you don’t, you won’t,” he said.
The key to Luetge’s making the team may have been his taking seriously the advice Willis handed out early.
“We encourage them to watch one another pitch, and he kept his eyes and ears open,” Willis said. “He came in with a ‘let’s see what I can learn’ attitude.”
What did he learn?
“I was drafted with a curve and fastball, and I added a slider last year,” Luetge said. “I came to camp throwing a four-seam fastball. I watched what other guys were getting outs with and switched to a two-seam fastball that moved more.”
Who did he watch most?
“Felix Hernandez. Felix throws a two-seamer and it moves like crazy. I’m happy mine moves, but it’s not like his. I’m probably 89-91 with movement,” he said.