The Growth Of Nick Lee: Developing An Ace
Aces are always high in the game of baseball. When a coach reaches for the ace in their deck, he knows the chips will land on his side of the poker table.
Nick Lee is becoming a second ace for Tony Robichaux and the Ragin' Cajuns Baseball team, a perfect complement to Gunner Leger and the rest of the staff. He joined a wolf pack of young pitchers that forged a bond last season as freshmen weekend starters, and he forced his way into the rotation as the man with the ball on Sunday.
Recently, Robichaux used him as the Saturday starter against South Alabama, possibly the most critical series in conference play. He passed nearly every test the game of baseball handed him this season, but Coach Robe wasn't surprised at all.
When he signed Lee, he saw the ace peaking through the deck of cards.
"We knew that when we got him," Robe said. "We thought he was going to be a premium arm, and we thought he was ahead of schedule in pitchability."
Freshman aren't supposed to come in as cold-blooded as Lee. Not only can he control multiple pitches, his mental approach to the game is patient, calm and collected. As he sees it, the other team shouldn't score when he's doing his job.
Coaches don't expect their pitchers to go out and collect shutouts every game, but that's the challenge Lee puts forth to himself.
"If I don't let the other team score, then we're going to score some runs for sure," Lee explains plainly, with the confidence of a 19-year old but the demeanor of a much older man. "I'm going to get a lot of run support, and I know I'm going to shut them out most of the time."
Lee held opponents to two or less runs in nine outings this year, backing up his words with a 6-1 record and 63 strikeouts so far this season. He knows people like strikeouts, but he doesn't base his game around K's anymore.
Strikeouts might have been what people cared about in high school, but this is college, where the players are better and the margin for error is slimmer. Lee knew he needed to adjust his game in order to succeed at the next level.
"I don't have to try and strike everybody out like I did in high school," Lee said. "The defense is good, so I can just let them put the ball in play and know my defense is going to make plays."
Trust is a trait that takes time to develop, but Lee trusted his teammates and they paid him back with the same support when he stepped on the mound. They had Lee's back from the second he stepped on campus as one of the hottest pitching recruits in the country, and now he's another wolf in the pack.
It doesn't take long for Coach Robe's philosophies on the game of baseball to rub off on his players. He recruits a certain type of man: one with respect, drive and a low tolerance for failure. Lee checks out in all three categories, and he's already starting to sound like his coach.
He knows that even as a freshman, he has a job to do. Nobody is going to pity him if his fastball is off or his changeup can't find the strikezone. It's on him to take care of his team and send the offense back to the dugout with no dessert.
"Whenever you don't have your stuff you just have to grind through it and get them with your B-game," Lee said.
Aces are kind of like arrowheads too. The sharp point and edges are crafted and honed over time by other hands, but all the creator is doing is bringing the shape out of the rock. The shape of the arrowhead was within the rock the whole time, they just had to find it.
Lee is a deadly pitching weapon, but it took several different sets of hands to sharpen his edge. One sits in the dugout (Coach Robe), and another sits behind the plate.
NICK THURMAN: HANDLING AN ACE
There's a lot to like about Ragin' Cajuns catcher Nick Thurman, but Nick Lee keeps it pretty simple when talking about his partner behind the plate.
"I don't really have to shake him off very much," Lee said. "We have the same name, so we kind of get along pretty good."
Nick and Nick get along just fine, and their relationship as pitcher and catcher is blossoming as the season goes on.
Thurman caught every pitch this season from every pitcher in every game, and as a fifth year senior, he's seen it all through the catcher's mask. He saw early on that Lee was going to be special. Thurm recognized it not just behind the plate, but also at it.
"In the fall, a lot of the older guys, we kind of struggled to hit off him. He kind of shocked us a little bit," Thurman admitted. "He comes at you real hard and his offspeed stuff, he just has such good arm motion, it's hard to pick up. He tends to dominate."
Domination comes in several forms. Some pitchers wind up and throw gas at you, while others paint the corners and play a different form of chess. As a catcher, it's Thurman's job to know his pitchers and what makes them click. He calls the pitches and presses the right buttons, and the arms go out and execute.
Thurman is a calming presence to a young pitching staff, but he doesn't claim much managerial prowess over Lee. He handles himself well when things get thick, and he doesn't require much from anyone.
As Lee said, sometimes you have to beat the opponent with your B-game. Even as a freshman, he knows how to take care of his buddy behind the plate.
"He's kind of easy to handle," Thurman said. "He's really honest with me. If I go out there and ask him how he's feeling, and he says he's feeling bad, then he still works as hard as he can to get through it."
When you have as many tools in the box as Lee does, you don't need to bring them all with you to finish every job. When he doesn't have his hammer, he reaches for the wrench and finds another way to get it done.
Thurman sees Lee's stuff from a different perspective, and he knows Lee is still a tough character when he's forced to grind through his B-game. When he has all three pitches going, good night.
"He's a good three-pitch guy," Thurman explained. "He usually can locate all of them for strikes, so whenever he has all of them, he's deadly. Whenever he has two of them, he's dangerous."
Lee's growth throughout the season has been hard to track statistically, only due to his own early success. He's been consistent since the beginning of the season. The true growth is going on in his mind and heart.
"He's getting a lot tougher on himself. He's demanding a lot more of himself," Thurman said.
When a player possesses an engine with a self-starter, they become a coach's best friend. Lee's mindset makes his coach behind the plate's job easy. Thurman's in-game coaching is one part of the formula for growth, but you can't leave out the most important piece: Tony Robichaux's baseball mind.
COACH ROBE: THE KING OF DIAMONDS
Tony Robichaux doesn't recruit boys because he only coaches men. He doesn't have time to coddle babies or wipe tears. That's one of the reasons he loves Nick Lee.
"We knew he was a tough guy. We knew he was mature for his age, and he had command over his changeup," Robichaux said. "For a freshman, that's a big deal."
Lee's command of his offspeed stuff reminds Coach Robe of another pitcher on his staff. Gunner Leger punches batters in the face every Friday, now Lee is waiting to get tapped in the ring to drop bombs too.
"You look at Gunner's success and you look at his success, both of them have command over a changeup," Robichaux said.
As a pitching guru, he understands the deadly possibilities when a pitcher knows how to pull the string on a ball. Fans get caught up watching the radar gun for 100 mph fastballs, so the finesse of a well-placed 84 mph changeup and a groundout gets lost. It doesn't get lost on Coach Robe, but to be fair, there isn't much his eagle eye misses.
A solid changeup is a game changer, and it's Lee's bread and butter. Chicks dig the long ball and fans love the heater, but coaches love a sweet breaker.
"The changeup, man. It's a tough pitch to handle," Robe said in his sagely, measured manner. "I can't tell you how much hitters hate that. They want a 3-0, 3-1, 3-2 fastball, and you got command over a changeup to throw it in 3-0, 3-1, 3-2 counts. That's exceptional, especially for a freshman."
Remember, that's just one of the several pitches Lee has total command over. His stuff is undeniable, which is why Coach Robe had no choice but to throw him into the weekend rotation.That posed a problem though.
Evan Guillory was a solid weekend starter all last season. He started 16 games (2nd in the Sun Belt), posting a 5-0 record with 56 strikeouts in 86.2 innings of work. He was, and still is, a major part of the pitching rotation.
In order to grow Lee, Robe decided to move Guillory to the midweek. It was a complex move to make, but he didn't want to throw his freshman to the dogs before he knew how hard they bit.
"We just felt the biggest kicker was not to go throw him on the road early in the year, and the way the road schedule worked up, it looked like put him on Sunday, and let Evan go take the road, and that's kind of why we did what we did to develop him," Robichaux said.
That's the final part of the equation: selflessness. It's the strongest adhesive that holds great teams together, and it's also often the hardest pill for players to swallow. Pride doesn't go down easily, and there's no glass of water to make you swallow it faster.
Evan Guillory could have pouted, complained or asked for a transfer when Robe told him he wasn't going to start on the weekends anymore, but again, Coach Robe doesn't recruit boys. Guillory responded like a man, and it was all to help bring another ace into the deck.
"Credit to Evan Guillory for being man enough to say, 'I'll let this freshman in here and I'll go take the middle of the week.'"
EVAN GUILLORY: ALL FOR ONE AND ONE FOR ALL
The decision to move Guillory to the midweek to make room for Lee was complicated, but Evan makes the conversation he had with Coach Robe sound pretty simple.
"He actually pulled me and Wyatt [Marks] in at the same time into his office, and he told me I was going to be the midweek guy," Guillory recalled. "I wasn't really that surprised, so I took it as a challenge because I knew we had a lot of road games."
It was a move that worked out for everybody. Lee got the experience on Sundays, and Guillory rolled up his sleeves and went to work in the midweek. He did a lot of heavy lifting too.
"We had to play LSU in Metarie, Southern Miss over there, Tulane, so I knew [in terms of] RPI games, midweeks were huge," Guillory said.
Guillory knows not to question Coach Robe's wisdom. Winning requires adaptation, and he didn't fight the current of change.
Lee is walking the same path this year that Guillory braved as a freshman. Guillory still remembers his baptism into collegiate baseball.
"Coach Robe told me I was going to have to grow up fast, so I didn't really have a choice. My first start was on the road as well at UT-A. I took a line drive off the back and came back to pitch pretty well after that," Guillory said with a smile.
Baseball dishes out a lot of bumps and bruises, but the tough players push through it. Guillory and Lee share the same stubborn ability to push through the rough ride, something Evan identified before their days playing under Tony Robichaux.
"That's the kind of guy he is. Ever since we were younger I'll go back to that. He never accepted being average, he's always wanted more for himself," Guillory said. "I've known Nick my whole life. I played summer ball with him, I played against him in high school, so we've been good friends since we were really young."
Guillory still remembers getting a hit off him in high school. Lee claims it was a dribbler.
"Nah, man. That was a line drive. I hit it solid," Guillory argued.
It would be easy for fans to look at Guillory's move to the midweek as a demotion, but that's not the case. Coach Robe doesn't believe in labeling Friday, Saturday or Sunday starters, in terms of best arm to worst. His pitchers don't see it that way either. Every win is important, and only a fool would pass up on a chance to win on Tuesday because he's told he can't pitch on Sundays.
Guillory stepped aside to make room, but it wasn't because Lee needed a booster seat to sit at the table.
"I don't really think he needed that. He's a big guy, he can fend for himself," Guillory said, sounding like his head coach. "He's grown up, he's experienced now, so I think that putting him in the weekends just made our staff that much better."
THE FUTURE: GROWING INTO HIS PAWS
Nick Lee is a puppy with massive paws. Not only does he check in at 6'5" and close to 200 pounds, his mental capacity for the game shoots his upside through the roof.
With Robe's coaching, Thurman's guidance behind the plate and the support of the entire roster, Lee is already pitching like an ace. Who knows how good he will be by the end of year two or three, and his commitment to UL means he's here for at least a few seasons.
Lee is about to get his first taste of postseason baseball too. Coach Robe said there are two types of athletes: one gets in the arena for the attention, and the other gets in the arena for a chance to throw down. Lee is type two, and he throws down like a full grown man. Don't let his age fool you.
MLB scouts will be all over Lee whenever draft time comes around, but they're going to have to wait a while. In the meantime, Cajun Nation needs to appreciate an ace at work. They only come up in the deck so often.