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Lucas Knowles Is Catching Attention At Central Arizona JC

Image credit: Lucas Knowles (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

Central Arizona College’s campus is located just about a half hour drive southeast of the outskirts of the Phoenix metropolitan area. Its secluded location at the foot of a butte smack dab in the middle of the desert makes it seem like it’s much further from civilization.

The solitude of the place causes visitors to feel like they’ve made it to the middle of nowhere upon arrival. But this remote outpost, near the town of Coolidge, Ariz., and not far from the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, hasn’t kept the Vaqueros from perennially being one of the top junior college programs in the nation. Eighteen Central Arizona players have gone on to play Major League Baseball, including current big leaguers Ian Kinsler and Tony Barnette.

Lefthander Lucas Knowles could certainly be excused for being a bit shocked by the surroundings when he first arrived on campus after transferring from the University of Washington. The Sonoran Desert landscape is nothing like what he experienced during his previous years at the UW campus in Seattle or at South Kitsap High in Port Orchard, Wash.

“I was a bit surprised when I showed up on campus,” Knowles said. “I didn’t really know what I was getting into . . . It’s a huge difference in coming from the city of Seattle. But you get used to it . . . you like it. I’m from a small town, so it fits well. It feels like home.”

Knowles further allayed any concerns regarding his move to the desert Southwest by saying, “I came to paradise to play ball.”

Three weeks into the JuCo season, Knowles is proving to be the most intriguing prospect on a team stacked with potential 2019 potential draft picks, including four other transfers from Pac-12 schools. In three starts, including his JuCo debut against another powerhouse team, San Jacinto-North, Knowles has yet to give up an earned run in 16.1 innings, scattering seven hits while striking out 22 hitters.

Knowles’ season at Central Arizona comes a year after he made the University of Washington weekend rotation as a redshirt freshman, having sat out his first year with the Huskies while recovering from the Tommy John surgery that also caused him to miss his final high school season. Knowles also got to pitch for the Huskies in the 2018 College World Series in Omaha.

The reason for Knowles’ transfer from Washington has been reported as related to the unavailability of a scholarship for him after his walk-on season at UW. In talking with him Knowles prefers to just say, “I have no ill will towards that program at all. I’ll be a Huskie fan all my life. I love those guys and the coaches did a lot for me, but the timing just didn’t work out right.”

Once the decision was made to leave the UW program, Knowles knew right away that Central Arizona would be the next stop on his baseball career.

“It was a pretty easy choice,” Knowles said. “Coach (Anthony) Gilich and I had talked in the past, and he was the first call I made and the only one. It was real easy.”

Gilich is obviously pleased that Knowles chose to make the nearly 1,500-mile trek from Seattle to Coolidge, but it’s more than just for what he’s contributing on the mound.

“He’s a great kid, number one,” Gilich said. “He’s really talented . . . But I think something that trumps everything else about his game is his competitiveness.”

Gilich went on to point out that in his most recent outing, Knowles didn’t have his best stuff but was able to shut out the opposing team through sheer competitiveness.

Knowles uses a four-pitch mix—fastball, cutter, curveball, changeup—providing variety by using two different variations of the changeup. The heater has been sitting 89 to 90 mph so far this season, but Knowles expects it to tick up a few clicks as the weather warms up. He recalls topping out at 93 mph last season.

“It’s the spin,” Knowles said when asked about the difference in his changeups. “If I’m throwing a guy two-seam sinkers, I’m going to try to have the same spin on the ball and throw two-seam changeups, and if I’m throwing four-seam fastballs I want him (the batter) to see the same thing out of my hand so it’s a little tougher to pick up.”

That explanation of how he varies his pitching is part of why scouts refer to Knowles as having good pitchability.

“I don’t even know what pitchability means,” Knowles says with a laugh, “but I think it’s something you learn through years of pitching. I had Tommy John back in 2015 and it changed the way I pitch. I used to just flip burgers in there—little curveballs—and try to freeze people with 84 mph fastballs. The older I’ve gotten, and the more physically developed I’ve gotten, it’s completely changed.”

Talent evaluators who have been watching Knowles this year—and there have been plenty of them, with between 20 and 30 area scouts at his last start—like his varied arsenal, the movement he gets on his pitches and a delivery that’s been described as workable, as well as his athleticism on the mound.

At 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, Knowles has room on his slender frame to pack on more strength. He’s following the same strength training regimen that he had at Washington, crediting Huskies strength coach Gabe Derman for setting up his workout program. Gilich added that the Central Arizona program followed by all Vaqueros pitchers includes long tossing and a band program.

While it’s a little early for draft projections, Knowles will be a likely pick on Day Two of the draft. But he’s also got a scholarship offer from the University of Kentucky in his hip pocket, and he likes everything about the Wildcats’ program.

“The coaching staff has built a culture that’s going to last a long, long time,” Knowles said about Kentucky. “That program is on the rise . . . It’s a winning culture, and they’re going to do a lot of great things.”

The decision on where Knowles goes after his one year at Central Arizona is on the back burner for now. He’s got the rest of the season to focus on and perhaps even another trip to a World Series, this time to the junior college championship at Grand Junction, Colo. But for now, he’s just looking at improving his craft and being the best pitcher and teammate he can be.

“I need to improve in every aspect of the game,” Knowles said. “I need to get bigger, stronger, faster, throw harder, develop my breaking pitches more and (improve) my mound presence . . . I think I need to improve in everything.”

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