Power On The Mound And At The Plate

Make no mistake: Brad Lincoln’s baseball future is on the mound, where the second-team preseason All-America righthander has gotten off to a 4-1, 2.18 start with 54 strikeouts and 10 walks in 41 innings this year.

But that doesn’t mean Houston coach Rayner Noble isn’t also thrilled to have Lincoln batting cleanup for him.

Lincoln, a 6-foot, 200-pound junior, was second on the Cougars with seven homers and 52 RBIs in 2005, and he picked up this year where he left off. In Houston’s season opener against Texas-San Antonio, Lincoln blasted a three-run, walk-off homer in the bottom of the 10th inning to give the Cougars an 11-10 win–after starting the game off by throwing five scoreless innings and striking out seven.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do–hit a walk-off home run and be dogpiled at home plate,” Lincoln said.

And Houston hadn’t seen the last of Lincoln’s two-way heroics. About a month later, Lincoln held UC Irvine to two runs on five hits over nine innings while striking out 12, and also managed to break an eighth-inning tie with a game-winning solo homer.

“I knew he was going to be a big part of our offense, and he has shown glimpses of it in the past, but he has really been a guy that has made the difference when the difference needed to be made,” Noble said. “Against Irvine in the Friday game, he basically won that game himself.

“As a coach, you always remember the ones where, when the game was on the line, they always want to be on the mound or at the plate, and he fits that description.”

Lincoln registered just 21 at-bats as a freshman, after asking Noble if he could start hitting midway through the year. Noble said Lincoln was a little raw at the plate, but he recognized the freshman’s pull power from the left side and began playing him at first base when he didn’t pitch.

Lincoln entered his sophomore year with high expectations as Houston’s Opening Day starter, thanks to his 92-94 mph fastball that touches 96 and his quality curveball, but he lacked consistency and finished 4-7, 4.76 with 106 strikeouts and 25 walks in 102 innings. As evidenced by his strikeout totals, he showed flashes of his potential.

“Sophomore year was a little scratchy, and this year I came out knowing I had something to prove,” Lincoln said. “To this point I’ve done it, and I’m starting to realize I could do something big this year.”

Scouts were starting to realize he could do something big in the professional ranks, too. The Rangers drafted Lincoln in the 28th round out of high school and hoped he’d go to junior college as a draft-and-follow because of questions they had about his size. His collegiate success largely have answered those questions, and Noble compares Lincoln to another former Cougar with a similar build and similar two-way resume, Twins reliever Jesse Crain. Noble said Lincoln could follow a similar career path–starting out as a middle reliever with a chance to close games eventually.

Noble didn’t rule out the possibility that Lincoln could be a starter down the line, but said he will have to continue developing his changeup for that to happen. Lincoln is starting to throw the pitch more against lefties, but he still struggles to command it consistently.

“He really didn’t use his changeup much early in the year, but it has pretty good sink to it,” an American League scout said. “Probably down the road he’s going to have to use it more. But he’s got a pretty good breaking ball, and he went real quick, aggressive after the hitters.”

Lincoln’s fierce demeanor and relentless style on the mound is a big part of his success.

“We get scouting reports every time we play, and I don’t even look at the scouting reports, I hand it right back to my coach,” said Lincoln, who recorded at least seven strikeouts in each of his first seven starts of 2006. “I go out there and pitch my game. I’m not going to adjust to them, they’re gonna have to adjust to me. I just go right after them with my fastball, and if they adjust to that, I go to my curveball and changeup.”

But Noble said that aggressive nature does not carry over off the field. Lincoln is a model teammate with a pleasant disposition.

“He’s just an easy-going guy, who kind of sticks to himself,” Noble said. “I wouldn’t say he’s a real quiet guy, but he’s not one of those guys that’s hootin’ and hollerin’ all the time. He comes from kind of a lazy town down in Clute, Texas. He likes to hunt and fish–he’s just a good person. He’d give you the shirt off of his back.”

And give Houston everything he has, at the plate and on the mound.