Born 16 months after his dad’s last game in the big leagues, Lance McCullers Jr. never experienced a Major League Baseball clubhouse atmosphere firsthand with guys like Cy Young Award winners Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke or an MVP like Alex Rodriguez walking around.
But the Jesuit (Tampa, Fla.) senior joins that trio as a member of an elite alumni club after being named Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year. McCullers was duped Thursday into believing a staged sit-down interview with network analyst Sean Casey was about the forthcoming MLB first-year player draft until the former 12-year veteran revealed the Gatorade trophy.
“This is something I’ve wanted to win for so long,” said McCullers, 18, the oldest son of former major league right-hander Lance Sr. “I watched online last year when [Baltimore Orioles No. 1 prospect] Dylan Bundy won it. It’s mind-blowing really to be on a list with the guys who’ve won this. You’re talking about people I look up to and model my game after. Especially a guy like Greinke, a smaller-stature pitcher who I’m sure went through some of the things I’m going through. I’m just so blessed and so grateful for this honor.”
A 6-foot-2, 205-pound right-handed starter, McCullers posted a 13-0 record with a 0.18 ERA and 140 strikeouts against 30 walks in 77.1 innings pitched this past season, leading the Tigers (28-2) to the Class 5A state semifinals. The 2011 Jackie Robinson Award winner as the country’s top rising senior, McCullers, also a shortstop, batted .280 with two home runs and 21 RBIs, stealing 10 bases in 10 attempts. An All-American as named by ESPNHS, Baseball America, Perfect Game, MaxPreps and Louisville Slugger, he scored 27 runs while producing a .485 on-base percentage and .486 slugging percentage.
“I felt like Ashton Kutcher was going to pop out as we were we setting the kid up, it was just like an episode of 'Punk’d,'” said Casey, 37, a left-handed-hitting first baseman and three-time All-Star who played 12 big league seasons with five teams, finishing with a .302 career batting average. “Lance was so excited. What a cool moment for him and one I’m sure he’ll never forget.
"I kept thinking, ‘Man, this is such a good interview we’ve got going on, I wish it were real.’ We all know there are a lot of great ballplayers out there, but this kid is so down-to-earth and so invested in giving back to his community. That’s what this award is all about. The total package.”
As the recipient of the 243rd Gatorade National Player of the Year trophy to be awarded since 1985, McCullers becomes the 19th student-athlete from the state of Florida to earn Gatorade National Player of the Year honors in any of the award program’s 12 sports. He is now a finalist for the prestigious Gatorade Male High School Athlete of the Year award, to be presented at a special ceremony prior to The ESPYS in July.
The award recognizes not only outstanding athletic excellence, but also high standards of academic achievement and exemplary character demonstrated on and off the court. ESPNHS manages the award’s selection process.
“Lance McCullers came into the season with a ton of hype and had scouts watching his every move,” said Jon Mahoney, ESPNHS baseball editor. “You’d expect him to have a rough start here and there. But he goes out and delivers a phenomenal campaign. Two earned runs all season? That’s just filthy, especially against the competition his team faced. Simply put, McCullers rose to the occasion in the face of incredible pressure. He’s a worthy choice for Gatorade National Player of the Year.”
McCullers has maintained a B average in the classroom. A volunteer on behalf of Challenger Baseball, the Special Olympics, Metropolitan Ministries, the Head Start Program and as a Bakas Equestrian Center assistant for intellectually challenged children, he has also donated his time as part of a literacy-outreach initiative, as a motivational speaker for middle school children and as part of multiple food drives for the needy in association with Jesuit High.
As a senior, McCullers fanned 1.81 batters per inning pitched. In addition to making seven appearances for the 2010 USA Baseball 18-and-Under National Team, McCullers also participated in the 2010 Under Armour All-America Game and 2011 Perfect Game All-American Classic.
He has signed a national letter of intent to play baseball on scholarship at the University of Florida this fall, but is projected as an early-round selection in next month’s Major League Baseball first-year player draft. McCullers’ father played seven seasons with the Padres, Yankees, Tigers and Rangers before retiring in 1992.
McCullers is the seventh Floridian to win Gatorade’s national baseball award, including the Yankees’ Rodriguez in 1992-93 and inaugural baseball winner Gary Sheffield in 1985-86. Past Gatorade Florida Baseball Players of the Year include Cleveland Indians designated hitter and two-time All-Star Johnny Damon as well as Atlanta Braves former MVP and future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones.
Recent Gatorade National Player of the Year alumni from the realm of baseball include minor league phenom Bundy (2010-11), recently promoted to the Carolina League as a 19-year-old in his first pro season, Detroit Tigers starter Rick Porcello (2006-07), Kershaw (2005-06) and Arizona Diamondbacks two-time All-Star outfielder Justin Upton (2004-05).
Bundy became the first baseball player to win Gatorade Male High School Athlete of the Year recognition last July during ESPYS week.
Florida has now produced more Gatorade national winners than all but two states. California ranks No. 1 with 58 and Texas is next with 25.
Want to know who won Gatorade Baseball Player of the Year in your state? Click here. Visit the ESPNHS Player of the Year blog and be the first to know who wins 2011-12 Gatorade Player of the Year hardware in three remaining sports by following the ESPNHS team that manages the award program’s selection process.