6th of May | Story

A Bayou Ace


RANCHO CUCAMONGA, California | A little more than seven years ago, Zach Lee fired another pitch during another tournament for another team down in Louisiana. He was hardly even a teenager then, still in middle school, and on that day, he wore the uniform of one of the travel teams he played for during an athletically packed childhood. Baseball seasons had already started to blur together a bit.

Lee still remembers at least one pitch, though, a fastball he pumped down the middle, his answer to falling behind in the count, three balls, no strikes.

After that, his memories are a mess.

“I got hit with a line drive in the jaw,” Lee says. “You have one of those experiences with a serious injury and you recognize how quickly things can go wrong. You love the game, but you know the game can turn on you in a hurry.”

Lee still remembers the fastball he pumped down the middle, his answer to falling behind in the count, three balls, no strikes. He still remembers the ball coming back and connecting with his jaw. “You have one of those experiences with a serious injury and you recognize how quickly things can go wrong," he says. "You love the game, but you know the game can turn on you in a hurry.”

Lee has suffered no other major injuries since that day. At McKinney High in Texas, he pitched for the baseball team and quarterbacked the football team. During a summer of classes at Louisiana State, he started to prepare physically and mentally to do the same for the Tigers before the Los Angeles Dodgers offered him a backloaded $5.25 million bonus to sign. During his first season in the minors, with the Great Lakes Loons of the Low-A Midwest League, he earned high praise from scouts and Dodgers brass for his ability on the mound and in the dugout.

Healthy, all the while.

Now Lee is the de facto ace of the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes of the High-A California League, still developing and moving forward in a league prone to home runs and lots of hits. He has turned in some statistical duds — his line is a modest 2-2 with a 5.13 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP — but of the seven homers and 23 earned runs he has allowed over his first eight starts, about half have come during two disappointing games. He has actually struck out considerably more batters per nine innings (9.15 compared to 7.51) and per walk (5.13 compared to 2.84) this season than he did last season.

“I worked a lot more on off-speed pitches during the offseason, tried to make that a little sharper, give it a little more break,” Lee says. “The stats may not show it, but I think I’ve thrown the ball pretty well. A couple mistakes here and there, and you pay for it a lot more than you would at the lower levels.”

During the four or five days between his starts, Lee sits in the stands, charting pitches, or down in the dugout, watching and learning and developing plans to make hitters look bad. “I just try to learn tendencies, try to learn swing paths, try to pick up things to figure out how I would attack them rather than how they would attack me,” he says. “There are numerous ways you can go out and attack guys and get guys out, it’s just a matter of what you feel comfortable doing with your repertoire.”

Lee has a cutter, a curveball, a slider and a changeup now to complement a fastball that can touch 98 mph when it needs to. There will be few fastballs down the middle any more, though, especially on 3-0 counts. Lee learned that lesson long ago when that travel tournament comebacker connected with his jaw. “My gum fell out,” he says, “and I couldn’t find the ball. 

“Didn’t knock me down, though.”

Time for minor league trivia. The Quakes have been affiliated with the Dodgers for two seasons now, their third stint with the local team after previous partnerships from 1976 through 1983 and again in 1995. With what other 11 — yes, 11 — Major League organizations has the franchise been affiliated during their 66 seasons in Southern California. (Keep reading for the answer, and give yourself a point for every correct answer.)

The Quakes pounded the Lake Elsinore Storm, 9-2, and rolled to their season-best fourth straight win. Rancho Cucamonga jumped out to an early lead thanks to five runs in the third, then pulled away and erased any remaining doubt after designated hitter Chris Jacobs and catcher Michael Pericht each homered in the seventh. Right-hander Angel Sanchez turned in his strongest start of the season, limiting the Storm to a pair of runs on six hits over eight efficient innings.

The Epicenter is both home to the Quakes for at least five months every season and the center of the Rancho Cucamonga Adult Sports Park, a collection of baseball, softball and soccer fields tucked inside a parking lot and plenty of grass. The complex sits on 52 acres and is typically packed during the weekends, when the fields are full of weekend warrior softball players dashing around the bases and across the outfield.

Want the answer? During their years in Visalia (1946-62), Salinas (1963-1965), Lodi (1966-1984), Ventura County (1986), San Bernardino (1987-1992) and Rancho Cucamonga (1993-present), the Quakes have been affiliated with — deep breath — the Cubs, Reds, A’s (when they still played in Kansas City), White Sox, Mets, Indians, Padres, Orioles, Blue Jays, Mariners and Angels. And the Dodgers, of course.

And in random statistical news, the game started two minutes later than scheduled, the first pitch was a strike, the first batter struck out swinging and the “Star-Spangled Banner” lasted 1 minute and 32.6 seconds. We went for some pulled pork up in the press box, which is not, we know, indigenous to Southern California. We did head to In-N-Out after the game, at least, for some Double-Doubles and shakes.

Matt@AMinorLeagueSeason.com ♦ @MattLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason

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