By: Brian Frank
As Nathan Lukes walked over to speak with The Herd Chronicles after the Blue Jays took batting practice before their game against the Seattle Mariners, he was stopped by the team’s bench coach. Lukes paused and listened intently.
“I mean, it’s Donnie Baseball,” Lukes said of getting advice from baseball legend Don Mattingly. “When he opens his mouth, your ears have got to be on. You’ve got to be listening. That’s one of the best people to learn from – so take everything in, process it, and use it.”
Lukes takes a practice swing at Rogers Centre. Photo Credit: Brian Frank
Lukes was named the winner of the Stan Barron Most Valuable Player Award last season in Buffalo after he slashed .285/.364/.425 with 11 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 111 games.
“It was nice being recognized for the way I’ve been playing,” he said of being the Bisons team MVP. “But I’m not going to stop there. I want to keep going and keep proving to people that I can play this game.”
He was added to the Blue Jays 40-man roster in the offseason, giving him a legitimate chance to be with the big league team on Opening Day. But he knew he’d have to have a good spring if he was going to join the Blue Jays for the season's first game in St. Louis.
“It was pretty much just trying to get that 40-man spot out of my head,” he said of his approach in spring training. “I know that’s the golden ticket to get to the big leagues, obviously. But pretty much just going out there and playing the way that I play – and giving them a reason to play me. There’s always going to be a chip on my shoulder and I’m always going to want to do well and perform well. That’s the mindset I went into spring training with.”
He slashed .286/.340/.429 with two doubles and two triples in 18 Grapefruit League games and made the Blue Jays 26-man roster. He made his big league debut on Opening Day, when he came in as a pinch-runner in the seventh inning in St. Louis. He came around to score on a Matt Chapman single to tie the game 6-6. Toronto went on to win 10-9.
“Opening up in St. Louis and having (Blue Jays manager John) Schneider call me out – even though it wasn’t for my first AB – but even to pinch-run, and then scoring that run…” he smiled. “I mean, being older, 28 years old, about to be 29 – it was a cool moment. An awesome moment.”
On April 7, he briefly returned to Triple-A, where he kept hitting, just like he always has for the Herd. In six games for Buffalo, he slashed .333/.448/.500 with a home run and six RBIs, before being called back up to Toronto.
“Everyone told me that I wasn’t going to be there (in Triple-A) long,” he said. “Just go down and perform. I pretty much put my head down and just played the game the way it’s supposed to be played. Pretty soon, it was not even ten days later, and I was back up.”
Lukes was the Bisons MVP last season. Photo Credit: Brian Frank
His role in the big leagues is different than it was in Triple-A. In Buffalo, he was certain to be in the lineup every day, with the occasional day off. In Toronto, he may not get into games for stretches, but he always has to be ready. At any moment, he could be called on to start a game, pinch-run, be a defensive replacement, or pinch-hit.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” he said, “but we have older guys here that have been through it and I talk to them about it. From the third inning on, I’m pretty much constantly moving and constantly going and warming up, hitting, throwing.”
Being in the big leagues gives him a chance to prove he can play the game at the highest level and contribute on a team looking to win a World Series. It’s also an opportunity to learn from the game’s best.
“It’s a learning experience,” he said. “I’m watching some of the greatest players in baseball play this game. I mean it’s amazing. My jaw’s always on the floor, just watching them do their thing. It’s been cool.”
This is the second Conversations with the Herd with Nathan Lukes. To read the first conversation, click here.