Jason Lane Hopes To Add A Second Act To His Pro Career




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Jason Lane's place in college baseball history is fairly secure, and it should be greater.

A two-way player at Southern California, Lane was a key member of the Trojans' last national championship team in 1998. He led all batters with four home runs and a .517 mark in that series. His 15 hits and 31 total bases remain records for a single College World Series, and his four homers is tied for the most in a single Series.

I remember casting my ballot for Lane as Most Outstanding Player that year; his grand slam in the ninth helped the Trojans stretch a precarious 16-14 lead out to its final 21-14 score. (Wes Rachels won the vote though.) The weekend before, I'd seen Lane gut out five innings on a Sunday after pitching in relief on Saturday, helping Southern California grind its way through a six-team regional field at Clemson that was stacked with future big leaguers. Now 14 years later, Lane's Facebook page featured a photo of him pitching for the Trojans in Rosenblatt Stadium as the main image.

Lane was a junior that year but wasn't drafted. He wound up hitting 20 home runs the next season and getting drafted in the fifth round by the Astros, who were rewarded when Lane became their everyday right fielder in 2005.

It turned out to be his best big league season, and the Astros' too. Lane hit .267/.316/.499 with 26 home runs, ranking second on the team behind former USC teammate Morgan Ensberg. He hit three more in the postseason as Houston won its first (and as it turns out only) National League pennant.

Lane's lack of selectivity caught up to him thereafter; he hit 23 home runs the next two seasons while batting just .192 over 459 at-bats. He hasn't appeared in the majors since 2007, instead laboring in Triple-A. This year, though, Lane decided to change things up.

Being Lefthanded Helps

In 2005, in the Astros' famous 18-inning Division Series game against the Braves, Lane says he was next in line to pitch had Chris Burke not ended the game with his walk-off, series-winning homer. Lane never pitched as an Astro after getting one appearance in short-season ball the year he signed.

But in 2009, the Blue Jays used him for an inning in a blowout loss for Triple-A Las Vegas. They went to him again in 2010, this time for four outings. And in 2011, the Jays nearly made Lane a two-way player again, using him six times for 13 innings. He struck out 12 and walked just two, though he also gave up 18 hits and seven runs.

"One of the games was actually here in Reno," Lane said, "and Kevin Towers was in the stands and saw me pitch. He had traded for me with the Padres in 2007, so he knew me. The next day he saw me in the tunnel before the game and said, 'Are you doing that (pitching) now? You looked pretty good out there.' That was encouraging."

Lane kept the Towers contact in mind when he became a minor league free agent after the season. He also kept pitching in mind, and after dabbling with it the last two seasons, he came to camp prepared to pitch first and hit second in 2012.

"It definitely helps that I've hit," he said. "I understand that hitting is difficult. I talked to plenty of great hitters in the big leagues and it's the same for them. The game is set up for the pitcher to win. Even if I'm facing a lineup of all-stars, they're still going to make outs seven out of 10 times.

"I try to be aggressive, throw strikes and change speeds."

Lane said he worked during his career as an everyday player to maintain his arm strength, playing plenty of long toss. Being lefthanded certainly doesn't hurt his chances, and at age 36, he still has a good arm. One scouting report from the spring had Lane touching 92 mph and throwing his fastball in the 87-90 mph range consistently, complemented by a nice sinking changeup. He's also throwing a curveball and got off to a strong start, getting four outs on Opening Day to hold a 4-2 lead and tossing a scoreless inning in his second appearance. He's chronicling the experience on his Facebook page (facebook.com/jasonlanemlb), changing his photo to reflect him pitching in an Aces uniform instead of with the Trojans.

Lane said he misses the in-game rhythm of being a position player, from hitting to playing defense to the time in the dugout. "It's a little more challenging mentally staying with the game from the bullpen," he said.

He keeps taking his cuts in batting practice as well, batting and pitching in the same game several times in spring training. He knows Brooks Kieschnick made it back to the majors as a two-way player and that Micah Owings added that kind of versatility in 2011 for the Diamondbacks, who (with Towers at the controls) won the NL West.

Lane would love to have earned another shot as an everyday player, but it didn't happen. He'd love to earn a job as a lefty reliever now in his second incarnation as a professional player, and if being a Kieschnick-style pitcher/pinch-hitter is part of the deal, so much the better.

"I think I can definitely add some flexibility to the roster at the big league level," he said.