Dream rotation thrown a changeup
Lucas Giolito and Max Fried hoped to be co-aces at Harvard-Westlake (Calif.)
This story appears in the April issue of ESPNHS magazine.
Harvard-Westlake baseball coach Matt LaCour knew there would be adversity.
Every time he met with his players before the season, he stressed one thing: Worry only about the things you can control.
Why the concern? Well, when you have the nation's top right-handed and left-handed pitchers in the ESPN 100 on your roster, things are bound to get a little crazy. And in righty Lucas Giolito (the No. 1 overall prospect in the ESPN 100) and lefty Max Fried (No. 4), LaCour had exactly that.
Between the army of scouts studying their every move, the media hounding the dream duo and the desire of every opponent to knock them off their pedestal, there was no shortage of possible distractions.
In the first two weeks of the season, LaCour's words proved prophetic. Giolito unexpectedly hit 100 mph on the radar gun in a start on Feb. 29, heating up speculation he'd be the No. 1 pick in June's MLB draft. Four days later, Fried gave up eight runs and 10 hits in 3⅓ innings, raising eyebrows in his second start at a brand-new school.
"The resiliency of this team is going to be tested," LaCour said a day after Fried got roughed up.
He had no idea.
You've got to rewind nine months to understand how this once-in-a-generation rotation came together in the first place.
Last July, Fried got a letter out of the blue informing him that his school, Montclair Prep (Van Nuys, Calif.), would be cutting all extracurricular activities, including athletics.
As a budding MLB draft prospect, Fried knew playing baseball his senior year wasn't optional. So less than two months before the school year was set to start, he began looking to transfer.
He'd become friends with Giolito a year earlier when they both played in the Area Code Games, a prestigious week-long event in Long Beach, Calif. As Fried began looking at new schools, he and Giolito joked about teaming up, although neither thought it would actually happen. But once Fried had weighed all his options, Harvard-Westlake (Studio City, Calif.) turned out to be the best fit.
"I was looking for a school with exceptional academics and exceptional athletics," Fried says. "It just happened to be the same school Lucas went to."
Just like that, a partnership was born. Bullpen sessions in the fall and winter turned into heated competitions over who had better command. As they grew closer as friends, their competitive streaks came out more and more and they pushed each other to new heights.
Soon, the accolades began piling up. ESPN senior baseball analyst Keith Law named them both top 10 prospects for the MLB draft -- Giolito No. 1 among prep right-handers and Fried tops among prep southpaws. Baseball America named both as preseason All-American first-teamers. On the strength of its two marquee arms, Harvard-Westlake debuted at No. 6 in the preseason POWERADE FAB 50 ESPNHS Team Rankings.
It was shaping up to be a season for the ages.
From his position in the outfield, Fried didn't think anything was wrong as he watched his friend walk off the mound with one out in the seventh inning against Bishop Alemany (Mission Hills, Calif.) on March 6. "I figured he'd reached his pitch limit," Fried says.
If only. Giolito had actually felt discomfort in his throwing elbow and signaled to the dugout that something was wrong.
The next morning, an MRI revealed a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, an especially frightening injury because damage to the UCL is what forces pitchers to undergo Tommy John surgery.
By the afternoon, it was announced Giolito wouldn't throw for a month and could miss up to 10 weeks of action, effectively ending his high school career. The news was unfathomable. Nothing suggested any signs of arm trouble for Giolito. He'd hit 100 on the radar gun a week earlier, and he had a fluid, easy delivery that didn't hint at impending arm problems.
"I just throw the way that feels natural to me," Giolito said a few days before suffering his injury. "When I release the ball, I couldn't tell you if it was going to go 90 or 100. It all feels the same to me."
Giolito isn't the first pitching prospect to be hit with an injury, and he certainly won't be the last. No matter how fluid and easy a delivery appears, the pitching motion is still an unnatural act for the body. And for all the swings and misses that come with being able to hit triple digits on the radar gun, that amount of power puts even more strain on the shoulder and elbow.
The number of pitchers whose promising careers have been sidetracked or stalled by injury is astronomic. For every hit (like Justin Verlander, the first pitcher picked in the 2004 MLB draft), there's at least a couple misses (like Bryan Bullington and Kyle Sleeth, the first pitchers chosen in 2002 and 2003, respectively). And more often than not, those misses are due to injury rather than a lack of talent.
"The first practice after Lucas got hurt, I remember being more conscious than ever about how I was feeling and if there were any signs of pain at all," Fried says. "But you can't play in fear of getting hurt. The most likely time to get hurt is when you're thinking about it."
For as much as LaCour had talked to his team about dealing with adversity, nothing could have prepared them for losing Giolito three weeks into the season.
"The first couple days after were tough," LaCour says. "It was like practice turned into a funeral. But it was actually Lucas who helped us move on. When he came out to practice a couple days after he got hurt, that raised everyone's spirits."
Despite his injury, Giolito pledged not to miss a practice or a game the rest of the season. Fried re-established himself in his next start, striking out seven over five innings without allowing an earned run. And with sophomore star Jack Flaherty stepping into the No. 2 starter role, the Wolverines are still in an enviable position.
As for Giolito's future, he should be able to throw for scouts again before June's draft, meaning there's still a chance he's in for a multimillion-dollar payday as a first-round pick. If not, he has a scholarship to UCLA to fall back on.
Fried is also committed to the Bruins, though he too could go in the first round of the draft.
Through all the adversity, LaCour believes both Giolito and Fried are in better positions than ever to achieve long-term success.
"In the past six months, they've both learned how to leave things in the past and concentrate only on the present," LaCour says. "All the hype, all the attention, all the setbacks, none of it really matters. These guys are on their own paths, and all they can do is go out and execute what they need to execute every day. Everything else is out of their hands."