After playing under Bieser, Lucchesi shines in majors
In the middle of the huddle, Joey Lucchesi spoke up.
The Southeast Missouri State baseball team faced Jacksonville State in the final game of the 2016 Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. The top-seeded Redhawks staved off elimination earlier in the day with a 10-7 win over Jacksonville State, and had to beat the Gamecocks again to win the double-elimination tournament.
It was Sunday, May 29. Lucchesi, a left-handed starter, was working on just one day of rest, having pitched a complete-game, 119-pitch shutout against Morehead State on Friday.
Before the game, then-Redhawks coach Steve Bieser summoned his players.
“He said something like, ‘Give it your all,’” Lucchesi recalled in an Instagram direct message. “‘No matter what, don’t give in. We’ve been working for this moment all year.’”
Lucchesi, a senior, knew it could be his last college game. He thought he had a few innings of relief stored in his otherwise drained left arm. He told Bieser he wanted the ball.
“I didn’t want to let that guy down,” Lucchesi said.
‘Kind of a secret’
Bieser had an advantage when it came to convincing Lucchesi to leave behind Chabot College, in California’s Bay Area, and join SEMO.
He already had Lucchesi’s catcher on the roster.
Before Lucchesi, a native of Newark, California, made the transition from Chabot to Cape Girardeau, Scott Mitchell did it.
Mitchell caught for Chabot in 2013 after spending 2012 with Long Beach State, but transferred to SEMO and began playing in 2014. He was the key to recruiting Lucchesi, who, Bieser said, was “kind of a secret.”
“Nobody was on him,” Bieser said. “We were lucky.”
So Bieser enlisted Mitchell to help coax Lucchesi to the Midwest.
“His catcher told him, ‘Hey, it’s not so bad to come from California to Southeast Missouri,’ Bieser said. “He convinced him.”
Lucchesi realized he fit in with the coaching staff — and SEMO needed his talents.
“I could tell that they really wanted me to help them out,” Lucchesi said of the Redhawks’ program. “They told me I would have a promising future with the team.”
SEMO’s coaches couldn’t have been more correct.
Lucchesi set the single-season strikeout record for the Redhawks in his senior year by fanning 149 batters. In his career with the school, Lucchesi struck out 242 batters in 199 innings. He posted a respectable 3.17 ERA his junior year and blew it away with a 2.19 mark during a standout senior campaign.
Lucchesi entered the final game of the OVC Tournament in the top of the seventh as SEMO clung to a 9-8 lead.
By the time he left the mound, the Redhawks had won the tournament. They provided Lucchesi with five more runs in the seventh and eighth. Lucchesi, in return, kept Jacksonville State scoreless. He got the save and earned the tournament‘s MVP award.
By virtue of the win, SEMO squeaked into the NCAA Tournament, receiving a No. 4 seed in Mississippi State’s region and squaring off with the SEC powerhouse Bulldogs in the first round.
“He carried us through there,” Bieser said. ”He got us to a regional that year.”
Lucchesi opposed Mississippi State’s Dakota Hudson, one of the then top collegiate pitching prospects in the nation and currently the St. Louis Cardinals’ No. 6 prospect, according to MLB.com.
Hudson allowed four runs and was pulled in the fourth inning. Lucchesi pitched into the sixth.
But a dropped fly ball in center field cost the Redhawks an upset win. The next day, they were eliminated with a loss to No. 3 seed Virginia Tech.
By July 1, less than four weeks after SEMO exited the postseason, Bieser was hired to replace longtime coach Tim Jamieson at Missouri. Lucchesi was already in the minor leagues.
Flying through the minors
Lucchesi wasn’t on anyone’s radar but Bieser’s while the left-hander was at Chabot. But by the time he finished his season at SEMO, he was being seriously evaluated by professional clubs.
He went back to California, as it turned out. The San Diego Padres drafted him in the fourth round of the 2016 MLB First-Year Player Draft, exactly one week after he squared off with Hudson in Starkville, Mississippi. Hudson was also drafted, going 34th overall.
Lucchesi carried on his stellar 2016 with 40 innings at Low-A Tri City and a brief stint in Single-A Fort Wayne. He pitched to a 1.29 ERA in the minors as a first-year pro.
He credits Bieser for the easy transition.
“He matured and turned me into a better man,” Lucchesi said, “and got me ready for the minors.”
The next year, against Advanced-A and Double-A competition, Lucchesi may have been even more impressive. He posted a 2.20 ERA in 139 innings and struck out 148 batters.
With his numbers, and an early injury to starter Dinelson Lamet, the Padres reasoned Lucchesi needed no more seasoning. He was 24 years old and ready for the big leagues. Lucchesi stepped into the big-league rotation March 30, the day after Opening Day.
“He came from nowhere and blows through the minor leagues,” Bieser said. “Now he’s starting on the second day of the season for the Padres.”
Lucchesi didn’t let the brights lights affect his dominance on the mound. He has caught the league by storm, posting a 1.66 ERA in his first four starts, good for seventh in the National League. He’s also struck out 25 batters in 21⅔ innings.
Wishing him well
It is easy to see a timeline in which Bieser and Lucchesi’s relationship ends after the final game of the OVC Tournament. Lucchesi never volunteers to pitch in the OVC title game and SEMO misses the tournament. Lucchesi is never seen on a national stage and never discovered by big-league clubs. He’s not where he is now.
But that’s not who Lucchesi is.
Right now, Lucchesi is one of baseball’s new phenoms. He was a little-known, junior-college product. Now, he is SEMO’s first-ever major-league starting pitcher. With continued success, he will become a household name.
And every time Lucchesi starts, the coach who “got lucky” to land him is in touch. Bieser wishes the lefty well before each of his starts. After the games, Bieser congratulates him.
“He’s a pretty special kid,” Bieser said. “I loved coaching him.”
Supervising editor is Jason Lowenthal: firstname.lastname@example.org, 882-5730.