Lambert's Last Shot At Baseball
By John Tomase
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass.--The hockey sticks were stowed for the 60-mile drive north into New Hampshire's White Mountains.
In just a couple of weeks, Chris Lambert would begin a postgraduate year at the Holderness School in Plymouth. Maybe the defenseman would earn a scholarship to UMass or UNH. Maybe his juniors career would explode. Maybe he'd emerge as an NHL prospect.
But Lambert had another love, and he figured he'd give it one last shot. So on Aug. 17, 2001, he attended the Perfect Game Northeast Showcase in Wareham, Mass.
Lambert arrived at Spillane Field an unknown. The shortstop had captained Manchester Memorial as a senior, then won an American Legion batting title and MVP that summer.
New Hampshire baseball awards mean about as much as Florida ice fishing trophies, so Lambert the baseball player went undrafted and unrecruited. But he had a secret. And when he finished sharing it, he became the most sought after amateur baseball player in the country.
Chris Lambert, it turns out, could pitch. His fastball topped 95 mph. His curveball had bite. The high school sophomores and juniors trying to hit him with wood bats had no chance.
"I pretty much went into it saying, 'I'm either going to throw my arm out because I'm never going to use it again, or nothing's going to happen,' " Lambert recalls. "I was going to play hockey anyway."
Cue sound of needle scratching off phonograph. Just days before the start of fall semesters, Lambert found himself at the center of a recruiting war. Clemson wanted him. LSU wanted him. Vanderbilt wanted him.
"It was like nothing I've ever seen," Tim Corbin, the Vanderbilt coach who was then Clemson's recruiting coordinator, told BA last summer. "I've never seen an unsigned senior who was that good that late in the summer."
Lambert's hometown Boston College Eagles won the battle. He enrolled at the Heights on Aug. 24, started classes in January, and joined the baseball team that spring. Out of nowhere as a freshman, he beat Rutgers' Bobby Brownlie for Big East Pitcher of the Year honors.
"I had two and a half weeks to make my decision and it wasn't like I could visit the schools," Lambert says. "Pack your bags, pick an airline, and where you land is where you're going to spend the next four years. It was a scary decision."
Two years later, he's wrapping up a college career that requires a full page in the media guide just for his awards. Despite an inconsistent junior season, he's likely to go no worse than early in the second round of the June draft. He could easily become the first Eagle ever selected in the first round.
Not bad for a New Hampshire native who pitched three innings in high school ("My coach thought I was more valuable to the team at shortstop") and only played baseball on the few days that didn't include ice, snow and temperatures on the wrong side of freezing.
"I think I'm just starting," Lambert says. "As far as baseball goes, I'm just a baby."
Tough Luck Season
Lambert will be the first to admit he expected more out of himself this season. He owned career marks of 17-5, 2.73 at BC coming into this season, and he had a fabulous summer on the Cape, going 3-3 with a 2.12 ERA and 56 strikeouts for Wareham. This season with two regular season starts to go, Lambert was 5-3, 3.54 in 71 innings.
"He was a top-10 pick when the year started," said one American League cross checker. "Now I wouldn't be surprised if he goes at the end of the first round or even the second."
It took Lambert six starts to win his first game, though bad luck didn't help. He allowed just one hit in a 2-1 loss to Auburn. He dropped a 1-0 decision to Bowling Green after taking a no-hitter into the ninth. But Pitt and UConn also teed off for 13 runs between them.
Despite owning peripherals nearly identical to his freshman and sophomore numbers, Lambert's ERA rose by a run and his winning percentage stagnated below .500. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound righthander finally hit his stride on April 8, starting a stretch of four wins in five starts.
"I haven't had as good a year as I had hoped," Lambert says. "I've struggled a little bit. But I feel like I'm coming around."
Lambert has faced a barrage of stop watches, radar guns and notebooks at each start. Forty scouts witnessed one of his worst outings of the season, an 11-9 loss to Florida International in February.
"He's coming to the park with a lot of outside distractions that every other player in the program doesn't have to deal with," said Eagles coach Peter Hughes. "Scouts, financial advisors, agents, GMs, even PR requests. There are a lot of different things poking away.
"The first couple of years, all he had to worry about was going to the park to pitch. He wasn't used to having 70 people watch him warm up. But he's handled it well."
There's plenty about Lambert's game to like. He hit 96 mph on the Cape and has stayed in the 94 mph range this season. His changeup has a chance to be major league average. He's never had an arm injury.
"He's got a power arm," said an American League scouting director. "He could be a power reliever."
But doubts persist. He still walks a batter every other inning, and he commanded his curveball better as a freshman than he does now.
"I've seen the kid twice and walked away disappointed both times," said an American League general manager. "I don't know what to think. He's a talented kid with arm strength, but I haven't seen a pitcher yet."
Hughes bristles at the criticisms.
"Scouts can't look at someone and say they're good. They have to legitimize their jobs," he says. "To me, I'd leave the kid alone. He's good when he's just throwing and not thinking about mechanics. His breaking ball was a lot sharper before everyone started talking about his mechanics. Whoever drafts him should let him pitch to his own style so he can get back to throwing and competing--two of the things he does best.”
No Longer Anonymous
Boston may be baseball mad when it comes to the Red Sox, but the college game is another story.
Boston College, Harvard, Northeastern and UMass toil anonymously. The Eagles average about 150 fans a game at Shea Field in the shadow of the football team's 44,500-seat Alumni Stadium.
College baseball is such a non-factor in the region that when Lambert reached BC, he had never heard of a single college player, save for Stanford's Sam Fuld, a native of nearby Durham, N.H.
"I had no idea who Mark Prior was. I beat Bobby Brownlie and didn't even know who he was until I saw him signing autographs," says Lambert, who now gets 15 autograph requests a week himself. "Coming in, I didn't follow anyone. Best player in the country? Who's that? Looking back, I'm glad I didn't know. I would have been a wreck."
It's part of the charm of New England baseball, where high school seasons often last only 15 games and players embrace the "we want it more" mantra of big leaguers like Billerica, Mass. native Tom Glavine.
"On the West Coast, you can always go out in the backyard and throw," says Lambert, who was born in California before moving east as a toddler. "Here we've got a four-month window where you can go outside without long sleeves and four layers to play catch. It's hard, but it's worth it."
How this factors into where he's drafted remains to be seen.
"He's a tough kid," says the cross checker. "At the end of the day, if he's still there at the end of the first round, it's going to be hard to walk by this guy. He's got too much history."
Lambert just wants the chance.
"It's any little kid's dream to play in the big leagues, and that's what I'm going for," he says. "Once someone's invested in me and I can play every day, throw every day, long toss every day, I think the sky's the limit."