If Lucas Sims was struggling, his confidence ebbing, his control missing and the pressure building, he didn’t show it.
The Carolina Mudcats pitcher appeared pretty loose when he wheeled his white King Ranch F-150 into the Five County Stadium parking lot three hours before Monday’s game. He bounced out in a golf shirt and khaki shorts, a backpack casually slung over his left shoulder, looking more like an N.C. State student arriving for a May exam than a former first-round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves trying to find his way.
Later, Sims was warming up on the bullpen mound, his tanned arms wet with sweat, his fastball popping. Pop, pop, pop. Sims delivered pitch after pitch, never changing expression, his delivery smooth, as Mudcats pitching coach Derrick Lewis stood close by.
Finally, game time. The crowd was slim, but Sims as sharp as he has been this season. Showing a firm mound presence, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound right-hander went to work, putting in six solid innings, throwing strikes, in a rhythm, getting in a quality start against the Frederick Keys.
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A day later, Sims stood outside the Mudcats clubhouse behind the left-field wall, arms crossed, talking about the game. These were questions he enjoyed answering, explaining all that had gone right and not all that has been going wrong for the No. 3 overall prospect in the Braves’ farm system.
“I was in a little bit of a slump there, about three games in a row that were not up to my standards,” Sims said. “I went six, I competed, I think I put everything back on the right path.
“Everybody sets their goals high, but this game can humble you real quick. But as someone once told me, if you just go out there on the day you’re supposed to pitch and just try to beat the other team, everything will take care of itself. I’ve tried to take that with me and just go out and compete.”
Sims was the Atlanta Braves’ first-round pick in the 2012 draft, the 21st overall selection. For someone born in Lawrenceville, Ga., just outside Atlanta, for a kid weaned on Braves baseball who once roamed Turner Field and loved John Smoltz and Chipper Jones, it couldn’t be any better.
Be it could be worse. And at times it has been, although it’s easy to forget his 21st birthday is Sunday and he could be a college junior now – maybe pitching at Clemson, where he committed to play.
Some expected Sims, who received a $1.65 million signing bonus from the Braves, to be playing Double-A ball this season for the Mississippi Braves. His fastball is first rate, usually in the mid-90s, and his curveball is a strength. As Lewis put it, “Lucas can spin it.”
But the Braves decided otherwise, keeping him on their Class A Advanced team, the one that moved from Lynchburg, Va., to Zebulon this year and became the newest version of the Mudcats in the Carolina League.
Dave Trembley is an old baseball salt, once the manager of the Baltimore Orioles and now the Braves’ director of player development. He has many a story about young players and trying times in the minors, including one about Kerry Wood being shelled in a game and Trembley later finding the pitcher bawling in the clubhouse bathroom.
Why the tears? Trembley said Wood, then playing for the Orlando Rays in the Chicago Cubs farm system, said he had never been roughed up like that in a game – never failed. Trembley commiserated with his young player while knowing failure at that age in professional baseball is never a bad thing, but more important it was how the player handled it.
As Trembley said, “Better to find out there than one day in Wrigley Field.”
Wood handled it well. Sims, he said, would be the same.
“Lucas has a very good makeup, has very good work habits,” Trembley said, before Sims tossed another seven solid innings Saturday, allowing just one earned run and striking out six. “He was a heck of an athlete in high school. He’s got all those intangibles, plus he loves to compete, and he wants to be an Atlanta Brave, which is probably the feather in his cap. He has a chance to grow up and see that dream come true.
“A lot of these kids are in a hurry. They put the cart before the horse. I tell these kids they have to go through the process and the process is learning. That’s what player development in the minor leagues is all about. You learn the guys you’re playing against are pretty darn good. You learn it’s a game of adjustments, but I also think it’s a game where you have to go with your strengths, and Lucas’ strength is he has a real good arm and the ability to throw the fastball.”
Told the Kerry Wood story, Sims smiled, saying, “That’s kind of what happened to me last year. That had never happened to me.”
Learning to fail, adjust, succeed
In 2013, pitching for Rome of the low Class A South Atlantic League, Sims was 12-4 with a 2.62 ERA, fanning 134 in 1162/3 innings. That was a promising step and some good times.
But 2014 was a step up, and step back. Pitching for the advanced A Lynchburg Hillcats, he was 8-11 with a 4.20 ERA, making a few minor changes with his positioning on the mound and his leg kick.
“I moved up a level and got hit around a little bit,” Sims said. “Some of my weaknesses got exposed. And I learned from it. That’s what you have to do, learn from it. If I had everything figured out I’d probably be in the big leagues.”
In spring training this year, Sims was used in a pair of the Braves’ games and pitched the eighth inning in a combined no-hitter against the Houston Astros. But he soon was on his way to the Mudcats, and some more hard times.
In his three starts before Monday’s game, Sims had allowed 14 hits and 12 earned runs in 82/3 innings, with 11 walks and 11 strikeouts.
“Everybody presses a little bit, even if they tell you they don’t, and he’s probably been pressing,” Lewis said before the game. “It’s a matter of consistency. And he’s a pro’s pro who shows up every day, goes about his business and puts in the work. That’s why we know he’ll turn it around.”
Against the Keys, Sims was often ahead in the count. Of his 86 pitches, 55 were strikes, and he finished with one walk and four Ks, giving up five hits and two earned runs in the Mudcats’ 6-5 victory.
“I’m trying not to be so mechanical this year,” Sims said. “Last year pitching for me was like rolling an octagon – click here, click here, click here. I wanted to get back to being more natural, back to being a smooth wheel.”
As Trembley put it, the pitching mantra for Sims is: “Repeat the delivery and command the fastball.” Do that, he said, and his control issues will dissipate.
“Lucas will be fine,” Trembley said. “If he had gone the college route, he’d be a junior and just eligible for the draft in June. He’s got the experience under his belt, and he’s learning that in professional baseball the big word is adjustments. He’s already got that framework under his belt.”
Living the dream
After his senior year at Brookwood High in Snellville, Ga., Sims gathered with his family to watch the 2012 draft. The Washington Nationals had the No. 16 pick, and for a millisecond, Sims believed that was his team.
“We’re all listening and I heard ‘Lucas’ come out and …” he said.
But the Nationals had taken Lucas Giolito, another right-handed pitcher. Five picks later, the Braves said “Lucas Sims.”
“Every great emotion flowed through me,” Sims said. “It was unbelievable. I woke up the next morning, and it was like, ‘This is a dream come true.’
“Even now it’s like that. I’m just living it.”
Climbing the ladder
Lucas Sims is one of 15 high school pitchers taken in the first or supplemental first round of the 2012 draft. They would be college juniors had they chosen that route. Here’s where they are today:
Out with Tommy John Surgery.
Reds’ No. 8 prospect, High Class A.
Nationals’ top prospect, recovered from TJS.
Braves’ No. 2 prospect, two strong starts in High Class A.
Recovering from offseason fight with ex-Carolina Panther signee Anthony Morales.
Twins’ No. 3 prospect in Double A.
Traded to Phillies in Jimmy Rollins deal, in Double A.
Suspended 50 games for drug violation
had shoulder surgery in 2013.
Ex-MLBer’s son in Double A.
6-8 lefty in extended spring training.
9-11, hasn’t pitched above Low Class A.
9-18 pro start earns trip to extended spring training.
Just 7-20, hasn’t pitched above High Class A.
14-8, pitching in High Class A.
Released after 2013 season in rookie ball.
“I moved up a level and got hit around a little bit. … If I had everything figured out I’d probably be in the big leagues.”
Carolina Mudcats pitcher