Lucas Gilbreath’s 2021 season began as the typical hometown-kid-makes-good tale. But there’s a chance that his story has a more compelling chapter to come.
Granted, the raw numbers for the Rockies’ rookie left-hander are not pretty: 6.41 ERA, 1.678 WHIP and 5.9 walks per nine innings. But in a lost season in which manager Bud Black admits a number of young relievers are getting their “baptism by fire,” Gilbreath has displayed encouraging flashes of talent in his 19 2/3 innings.
“This has been a big jump for him,” Black said, noting that Gilbreath was hurt by an inability to pitch in the minors last season because of the pandemic. “Being thrust into the major leagues, after not pitching for a year, and changing his role from a starter to a reliever, is a big transition.
“But the thing we like about this fella is that he has a major league arm, and there is an aptitude there, there’s a desire to succeed, there’s a work ethic. He’s a student of the game and he listens.”
Gilbreath, 25, was born in Westminster and graduated from Legacy High School in Broomfield. He grew up a die-hard Rockies fan, playing youth baseball at Larry Walker Field in Thornton. He grew into a hot prospect playing in the non-profit Broomfield Baseball League, at Legacy High, and in the Rockies’ Scout Team Program.
He moved onto the University of Minnesota where he was a first-team all-Big Ten honoree in 2017. In 2018, he posted a 5.04 ERA with 119 strikeouts over 116 innings as a starter at low-A Asheville. He stepped up the ladder to high-A Lancaster in 2019, going 5-10 with 5.81 ERA in 28 starts, striking out 143 across 144 frames.
Those numbers don’t scream success, but the Rockies remain high on his potential, and Gilbreath has adopted a mature approach to his career.
“I didn’t always have the most success in the world, but the ups and downs kind of helped me and motivated me to keep improving and keep getting better at some of those aspects,” Gilbreath said.
His rookie season has been a whirlwind.
He made his debut May 1 at Arizona where Josh Rojas sent Gilbreath’s very first big-league pitch over the right-field wall and into the swimming pool at Chase Field.
“Well, at least I got that out of the way quickly,” Gilbreath quipped after he finished off the inning, needing only five more pitches to complete the ninth inning of Colorado’s 14-6 victory.
On July 23, he pitched a perfect 10th inning at Dodger Stadium to close out a wild, and rare, Rockies victory over the Dodgers to notch his first save.
“I don’t get too excited about one game, but to get that save in such a crazy game, and to do it at Dodger Stadium was just awesome,” Gilbreath said. “It was great to pitch in that environment and have success.”
On Wednesday, he was called upon as an emergency starter in a “bullpen game” against the Angels in Anaheim, pitching one inning, allowing one run on two hits and a walk.
It was another step in his journey, but Gilbreath has come to grips with the growing pains.
“I’m starting to feel more comfortable and starting to learn how to be effective at this level,” he said. “But I know that every day I go out there I have to continue to work on things and improve.”
The left-hander’s biggest step forward has been tied to self-confidence.
“I’m learning to trust my stuff and trusting my stuff in the zone,” he said. “I need to go out there and throw strikes and execute pitches and not worry so much about the outcome.”
Gilbreath is primarily a fastball-slider pitcher, but he’s gradually incorporating a split-finger changeup into the mix.
“The splitter is something I’ve been working with because it’s something I can use against right-handed batters going forward,” he said.
The “splitty” is not an easy pitch to master and throwing one in a game, ultimately, takes a leap of faith. Gilbreath threw two of them in a game last Sunday vs. the Dodgers.
“(Catcher Elias) Diaz put the sign down and I thought, ‘Well, here goes, I have to try it at some point,” Gilbreath said. “Fortunately, I threw two good ones and now I have some confidence going forward. That’s a pitch you have full confidence in and you have to go all out with it. Because if you only go halfway, it’s never going to be effective.”
With veteran right-hander Mychal Givens having been traded to Cincinnati last week, the door has opened for young relievers like Gilbreath and right-hander Justin Lawrence to prove themselves over the final two months of the season.
Black is eager to see how Gilbreath responds.
“We are seeing signs of more consistency, and the effort level is where it needs to be,” Black said. “Earlier in the year, he was trying to overthrow the ball, as a lot of young pitchers do when they get to the big leagues, thinking that they have to do more.
“But now there is more poise, and I do think he’s a clear thinker. We’re still getting to know him, but all in all, he’s in a good spot.”
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