Brian Wright-Central Focus-Pinal Central
Lucas Knowles exudes confidence. The Central Arizona College sophomore pitcher is not cocky, but he is self-assured. And he's putting the baseball world on notice.
Is he the best junior college pitcher in the nation?
"I want to be the best pitcher in the country," Knowles told PinalCentral. "I don't want to lose a single game. And I don't plan on it."
Asked if he is the best pitcher in the country right now, Knowles smiled and paused.
"There's a lot of great pitchers in the country, and we're all very different," he said. "Jackson Rutledge at [San Jacinto College in Texas] is an incredible pitcher, and there's a lot of guys who have a lot more talent than me. But I'd take me over any of them."
Through his first eight starts in a CAC uniform, Knowles is letting his pitching do the talking. He is 6-0 with an NJCAA-best 0.52 ERA. In 52 innings, the 6-foot-1, smooth-throwing lefty has struck out 68 (third in the nation) and allowed just 23 hits.
Rutledge (4-1, 1.07) leads the NJCAA with 76 strikeouts.
A year ago, Knowles was a redshirt freshman pitching for the University of Washington. He pitched in the College World Series. He consistently faced some of the best hitters in the country while playing in the Pac-12.
An unexpected journey
Knowles, from the small town of Port Orchard, Washington, loved being a member of the Huskies. While the exact reason is unclear, he eventually made the painful decision of leaving the program.
Baseball America reported that it could have been the lack of an available scholarship for Knowles at Washington after he walked on as a freshman.
Before he knew it, Knowles was leaving the big city of Seattle to come to the middle of nowhere in a rural desert area just outside Casa Grande.
Fortunately for Knowles, having a prior relationship with CAC coach Anthony Gilich helped, as did a group of welcoming teammates.
"These guys out here made it a great transition," Knowles said. "I was heartbroken leaving Washington. I didn't want to go, but circumstances [arose] where I kind of had to. Coming here was great; it was instant family."
When Knowles knew he was leaving Washington, he called Gilich. There was no thought of going anywhere else for his sophomore year.
"He was the only call I made," Knowles said.
The call came just one day after Vaqueros freshman pitcher RJ Dabovich told Gilich he was transferring to Arizona State. It was a quick swing of emotions for Gilich, who was down after losing Dabovich.
Gilich had recruited Knowles before he chose Washington. After he had a solid freshman season for the Huskies, Gilich didn't think he would have the opportunity to see Knowles suit up for the Vaqueros.
"I was surprised when I got the phone call (from Knowles), once we did though, we were definitely excited about it," he said.
There's talented athletes in every sport. Sometimes what separates those at the top are traits that can't be taught. Stories are often told about Michael Jordan, John Smoltz and others who hate to lose at anything, even a game of cards.
Gilich has seen many competitive players during his time at CAC, but none of them were like Knowles. Sure, Knowles has physical attributes, good velocity and command of multiple pitches.
But that isn't what impressed Gilich the most.
"Something that is bigger than all that is competitiveness," he said. "He's arguably the most competitive guy I've ever coached. A lot of times, that carries him through on games where maybe he doesn't have his best stuff. He's just going to go out there and compete through it."
That competitive fire was stoked by Knowles' family. Intense battles with his brother and father molded Knowles into the person he is today. His brother, Logan, was a Division I baseball player at Navy and a two-time, first team all-Patriot League outfielder before graduating last year.
"That pushed me a lot from a very young age," Knowles said. "[My brother] would beat me in everything growing up — basketball, football, everything ... I didn't beat him for years. And my dad, he's a professional golfer. I didn't beat my dad in golf until last year. I didn't have anything handed to me, wins-wise, growing up. I probably have the longest losing streak out of anybody in the world. But it just fueled me to win more."
A wicked arsenal
In modern baseball, almost all pitchers throw hard. Being a great pitcher requires more, and Knowles has those abilities in spades. He throws a four-seam fastball in the low 90s and also has a sinker, slider and two different changeups.
Gilich said Knowles throws a four-seam changeup as well as a two-seamer. It's been devastating to opposing batters, who never seem to know what's coming.
"He's intelligent on the mound. He has some complex pitch sequences that he goes through that have really worked," said Gilich, who added Knowles is setting hitters up a couple pitches in advance.
And while Knowles has been lights-out from the beginning of the season, he keeps getting better. Heading into Saturday, his last two outings were particularly impressive.
In those starts against Scottsdale and South Mountain, Knowles threw a combined 16 innings and allowed one run on seven hits with 23 strikeouts and just two walks.
Gilich said Knowles is also a great teammate, he has a strong relationship with the players, and he is coachable. He can handle being chewed out, and he does not carry an oversized ego, with Gilich calling him "just one of the guys."
The future can wait
Dozens of scouts have been watching Knowles closely, and his dominating performance this season means he has options. He is committed to play at Kentucky next season, but if he's taken relatively high in the 2019 MLB draft, he will consider turning pro.
"The more success I've been having, the more you think about the next years and the draft and all that stuff," he said. "But that's just extracurriculars. Right now, I'm just focusing on the next game, who I'm throwing against next and just getting the next hitter out."
Knowles understands that his draft stock and baseball future could rise or fall at any moment, so he isn't concerned about having it all figured out now.
"It's very early. Nothing's set in stone," he said. "Baseball is too fickle of a game to plan stuff out months in advance."
But he has had talks with his family about draft positioning and what it would take for him to turn pro versus heading to Kentucky and the SEC for his junior season.
For now, Knowles is focused on being the best JUCO pitcher in the country, and on leading the Vaqueros (25-10) to the NJCAA World Series in Grand Junction, Colorado. He wants to bring home another national championship to CAC, something the program accomplished in 1976 and 2002.
A talented athlete in multiple sports, something most people don't know about Knowles is his affinity, and skill, for golf.
"I think naturally, my best sport is golf, by a pretty large margin," he said. "I'm sure if I wanted to, I could play college golf and play it at a very high level, but there's just something about the game of baseball."
Gilich and the Vaqueros are glad he chose the diamond.