By: Brian Frank
Nathan Lukes is off to a terrific start for the Bisons. He currently leads the team in numerous offensive categories, including hits (67), doubles (16), and home runs (5). He also leads the team among qualified batters in batting average (.305), on base percentage (.373), slugging percentage (.446), and OPS (.818). His consistency at the top of the Bisons lineup is one of the key reasons the team has been battling for first place all season.
“Consistency at the plate and getting the barrel of his bat on the ball,” Bisons manager Casey Candaele said when asked what impresses him about Lukes. “He plays the game the right way and gets after it. It’s been fun to watch him play. He swings the bat well. He puts together good at-bats. He’s a good ballplayer.”
Lukes, who was born in Portland, Oregon, played college baseball at Sacramento State University, where he slashed .336/.409/.449 in his three seasons with the Hornets.
“It was fun and I really got to learn about myself and who I was there,” Lukes said about his time playing outfield at Sacramento State in a recent interview with the Herd Chronicles. “The head coach, Reggie Christiansen, really helped with that. He taught us to just go out there, have fun, and play the game hard. Good things will happen when you play hard.”
Lukes finished his career as the program’s all-time hits leader with 244.
“I tied the hit record with a homer and I broke the hit record with a homer,” he smiled. “So that was really cool.”
Lukes is slashing .299/.368/.477 this season. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles.
Lukes was selected by Cleveland in the seventh round of Major League Baseball’s 2015 June Amateur Draft. He began his professional career playing for the Mahoning Valley Scrappers in the New York-Penn League and got off to a fast start, going 5-for-16 (.313) with a pair of doubles. However, everything came to a screeching halt in just his fifth professional game.
“I’m not one to really pull myself out of a game,” he said. “Pretty much the manager has to pull me out. I hate coming out because of injury. So, that at-bat – I remember it because I swung and it did not feel right. I finished the at-bat and ended up drawing a walk. I got down to first and told the first-base coach – ‘I’m just letting you know something’s not right with my hand. I did it swinging.’ He was like, ‘Oh that’s okay, I’ll tell the manager to get you out.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not saying I want to come out of the game. I’m just letting you know just in case.’ I thought I was going to go in, get it wrapped up, and go on my merry way."
"When the inning was over, I ran in and got my glove, got my hat, ran out to center field. Then the first ball I tried to throw warming up to play catch between innings, I knew something was wrong. No balls were hit to me that inning. When I came back in I said, ‘I can’t throw the ball.’ They ended up taking me out and I had surgery about a week later and that was pretty much it for my first year of professional baseball.”
Lukes came back healthy in 2016 and spent most of the season playing with Lake County in the Midwest League, where he slashed .301/.375/.453 in 89 games. In August, he was promoted to High-A Lynchburg, where he played just five games before his career took a quick turn when he was traded along with fellow prospect Jhonleider Salinas to the Tampa Bay Rays for outfielder Brandon Guyer.
“Things can change fast,” he said. “I went from Lake County and then got promoted to High-A, which was Lynchburg, Virginia, and I was there for maybe five days. The Double-A center fielder Greg Allen, his name was all over the map that he might get traded.”
Lukes continued with a chuckle: “So, when the manager, Mark Budzinski, came into the cages, and said ‘Hey Lukey, I need to talk to you.’ I thought – Sweet, I’m going up to Double-A. I’ve only been at High-A for five days. Man this is awesome.”
“Then he said, ‘You were just part of a trade.’ I was like ‘What?’ He told me I was traded to the Rays and literally the next day at like 6:00 in the morning I was on a flight. I was part of a whole new ball club. It’s crazy how quick things can change.”
“When I got traded I struggled when I got over there. I learned the hard way of how to go about it. I was putting pressure on myself to show the new guys I was playing with what I was capable of doing and it just went downhill. But the next year it came out – who I was – and I had a good year.”
Lukes began working his way up through the Rays system. He played at Double-A Montgomery in 2017 and 2018, before moving up to the Triple-A Durham Bulls in 2019. Then events again took a turn when the 2020 minor-league season was canceled due to COVID-19.
“My wife and I had our house rented out, so we couldn’t go back to Arizona where we live," he said. "We went out to Sacramento and lived with my parents and pretty much just worked out. There were a few other players. We all got together up at Sacramento State. The head coach (Reggie Christiansen) let us go out and pretty much do whatever we needed. He threw BP to us. He loves baseball and he loves everyone who came through Sac State. So it was good.”
Lukes signed with the Blue Jays organization during the offseason. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles.
Lukes spent 2021 with a team Bisons fans are all too familiar with – the Durham Bulls. The Bulls were a juggernaut, who finished the regular season with a .662 winning percentage. They ended up finishing 4 1/2 games ahead of the Bisons to claim the Triple-A East Championship. Lukes had a solid season, slashing .303/.352/.456.
“It was incredible,” Lukes said of playing for the 2021 Bulls. “That team was special. Everyone on that team was just lights out – defense, offense, pitching. The manager Brady Williams was an amazing guy and an awesome manager. We went to the field and had fun and when you have fun a lot of wins are going to come your way. Pretty much everyone on that team was a starter. We had six people on the bench who could be starters elsewhere. It was really special. I’m honored to have played for the Rays. They’re a great organization.”
He said the Bulls were scoreboard watching down the stretch, just as Buffalo baseball fans were.
“Now being here, it’s funny because we were just watching the scoreboard – like, man Buffalo is creeping up on us. They went on like a twelve game win streak or something like that and before we knew it, it was just like, wow they were just two or three games back.”
Unfortunately, there weren’t traditional playoffs in 2021. So instead of Buffalo and Durham playing each other for a championship, all Triple-A teams played an extra ten games that were added onto the end of the season. The extra games were dubbed The Final Stretch. Durham played Gwinnett and Norfolk, whileBuffalo played Lehigh Valley and Syracuse. The Bulls stayed hot during The Final Stretch, finishing with a 9-1 record. Buffalo came in second at 8-1, with Durham having the tiebreaker due to having a better regular-season record.
Lukes said that the Bulls were just as disappointed as Bisons players and fans by the fact that the two teams were unable to face each other in a playoff series.
“Yeah, it was the exact same,” he said. “We pretty much were like we want to play the best team out there and Buffalo was it. It was like – why do the ten games? Just let us go play Buffalo.”
“I mean we were there, so we might as well win it,” he said of Durham’s approach to The Final Stretch. “It was maybe a day or two before the first game started, they came out and said all your stats are counting. So you have to play hard if stats are counting. And they gave us a little money to win it, so that was nice.”
His new Buffalo teammates checked out his championship ring when he received it.
“They actually just sent me my ring,” he said. “It’s really cool too. It was just literally sitting on my chair in the clubhouse today. I looked at the package and thought – I know what this is. That was cool. Really, really awesome. There were some guys in there – they all took a peek.”
Lukes signed with the Blue Jays organization as a minor-league free agent during the offseason. He said the organization’s reputation led him to sign with the Blue Jays and ultimately end up with the Bisons.
“I just heard a lot of good things about the organization,” he explained. “Obviously my goal is to make it to the big leagues. That’s everyone’s goal. My buddy said the Blue Jays are pretty much the best organization he’s ever played for, so it was a pretty easy decision.”
His most memorable moment with the Bisons so far was an inside-the-park grand slam. It came in the fourth inning of a game in early June at Rochester’s Frontier Field. Lukes line drive to right field that looked like the Red Wings right fielder might be able to make a play on.
“Man I hope that gets down,” Lukes said he was thinking as the ball left his bat. “I was just watching it like get down, get down, get down. I saw him lay out for it and I saw the ball just start rolling to the fence. Then it was like – get it going. Start sprinting Put on the boosters.”
“As soon as it got past him I thought there was a chance. There’s a shot. Then I saw Devo (Devon White), our third base coach, waiving me along and I thought – wow, this really might happen. My legs were dead coming around third base. That’s a lot of running. After sliding into home and seeing my teammates there – that was really cool.”
“I don’t think many inside-the-park grand slams have happened. It was something I’ll always remember for the rest of my life.”
It is definitely a rare feat. In fact, it was the first inside-the-park grand slam by a Bisons player in the team’s modern era (since 1985).
Lukes has been one of the best all-around players on the Bisons this season, but he’s still striving to improve and take his game to the next level. One aspect of his game that he’s focusing on this season is stealing more bases.
“I’m really trying to kick it up a notch in base running and stealing bases,” he said. “Obviously to hit for power would be nice, but it’s not really who I am. But yeah, I’ve got to steal some more bases.”
Lukes has stolen twelve bases already this season. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles.
He’s been successful on the base paths so far this season. His career high for stolen bases in a season is fifteen in 2016. He’s already swiped fourteen bags this year. He’s also improved his power numbers. His career high in home runs in a season is six, which he accomplished in both 2016 and 2018. Counting his inside-the-park grand slam, he’s already blasted five home runs this season. His transition to playing in a new organization has certainly gone smoothly.
“Everyone in that clubhouse is just amazing,” he said. “We all get along. We’re all there to pick each other up when things aren’t going our way and I think that really helps. When you have a good group of guys coming together, it makes it fun to come to the ballpark. They do everything. They get you through the good times, they get you through the bad times. And you’re with them for 150 games. That’s a long time. There’s going to be a lot of ups, a lot of downs, and as long as we’re there for each other, it hopefully all goes a lot smoother.”
After pursuing Lukes and the Durham Bulls in the standings throughout last season, the Bisons are certainly happy to have Lukes on their side this year.