For Hector Lujan, 35 Isn't Just a Jersey Number
Image courtesy of Steve Buhr (photo of Hector Lujan)One name you won’t find on many list of high round picks or consensus top-ranked prospects is Hector Lujan.
You would have to go to some kind of top “performers” list to find Lujan and, when you do, you’re likely to find the relief pitcher’s name near the top of that list.
Lujan got off to a sluggish start this season, surrendering six runs, all earned, in his first five appearances out of the Miracle bullpen, covering 12 2/3 innings from opening day through April 22.
Over the six-plus weeks that followed, however, Lujan threw 22 innings during 12 appearances without giving up another earned run, while notching a 28/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
His performance earned him Twins Daily’s Relief Pitcher of the Month award for May.
The Corona, California, native was selected by the Twins with their 35th round pick in the 2015 draft out of Westmont College, just three rounds after the Twins selected his college teammate, Andrew Vasquez with their 32nd round pick.
As you can imagine, the draft week experience for Lujan was perhaps somewhat different than it was for those Miracle teammates that were selected among the top few rounds of the draft. Lujan knew he’d be waiting until the final day of the draft to learn his fate.
“I remember getting a text (early) in the morning,” he recalled in an interview last week. “My scout texted me, ‘you ready for this?’ I was like, ‘whatever opportunity you give me, I’m ready.’ Right then and there, I woke up. It was like 5:45 in the morning. I’d just gotten the text and I woke up. I just couldn’t go back to sleep. I woke up, my hands were sweating the entire day.
“Rounds were going through, they hit 20, I decided to go for a drive, try to relax. I could see all the names of my buddies going and I was getting excited. Then I decided to come back home, it was like the 30th round. I sat down, relaxed, and then I saw Vasquez go. Texted him and as soon as I texted him, I got a message from him saying ‘thank you,’ and right then I looked at my phone again and my scout’s saying, ‘hey, we took you in the 35th round. Welcome to the Twins.’
“Right then and there, I just jumped up, almost hit the ceiling fan. My parents were excited, so it was an awesome moment.”
The 35th round. And the right-hander wears the number 35 on the back of his Fort Myers jersey. Just a coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.
Being selected with just five rounds remaining in the 40-round draft could make you question your chances of professional success on the field, but that wasn’t Lujan’s mindset.
“Honestly, at the time for me, it was just like, you know what? I’m excited whether I was the very last pick or the very first pick, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “I just wanted an opportunity to play. Just, you know what, I’m going to make the most out of it. However long my career is, whether it’s five, ten, twenty years. It was just an exciting moment. I was like, I’ve got to take advantage of it as best I can.”
After moderate success with the Twins’ rookie league teams in his draft year and 2016, Lujan appeared to find his stride at Cedar Rapids in 2017 where he notched a 1.33 ERA and 0.91 WHIP over 42 appearances, all in relief, and converted 17 of 19 save opportunities for the Kernels.
His results weren’t as strong a year ago in his first season at class High-A in Fort Myers, but he did finish the campaign with a very strong August, striking out 16 and walking only two batters in 12 1/3 innings of work. His WHIP that month was a stingy 0.63 and batters hit just .133 against him.
The six-plus week of near perfection beginning in late April this spring came to a crashing end on June 5 when the Florida Fire Frogs touched him up for three runs on six hits in two innings of work.
After that hiccup, Lujan was philosophical about things.
“I try to just take the positives and negatives and kind of just flush it after,” he said the next day. “Then the next day, just carry on. There’s plenty more outings for me.”
What does a pitcher think about when he’s out there experiencing that kind of outing after several weeks of nothing but success?
“When I was out there, I felt like I was making good pitches and the results just weren’t going my way,” he said. “I just kept telling myself, ‘hey you know what, you got yourself into this mess, you can keep getting yourself out.’
“Sometimes, my thing, I go out there and try to get everybody out. Put up zeros and help our team win. Everybody has those outings where things aren’t just falling your way. Whether it’s a bloop hit, if you’re getting hit, if you’re walking guys, not getting calls. I just kept telling myself, ‘you know what? It is what it is. Let’s go, keep attacking the zone. Make the guy put the ball in play and get some outs.’ I’ve got my defense behind me; I’m just going to keep letting them work and make good pitches and let the rest play out.”
And when it’s all played out?
“You’ve just got to flush it and once the inning’s over, ‘right, that happened,’ and just focus on your next inning.”
That poise has been noticed by manager Toby Gardenhire.
“That’s part of growing up as a pitcher. Part of growing up as a player, in general,” Gardenhire noted. “Lujan’s done a really good job with that, where he doesn’t let things affect him that much. He’s got a really good split-change thing that he’s throwing right now. Has a good breaking ball. He attacks hitters. He doesn’t get flustered out there. He’s got a lot of things that you want in a reliever. He’s doing really good.”
Lujan’s next inning came three nights later against Jupiter, when he hung a zero on the board in his inning of work to preserve a 4-2 win for his club and tally his fifth save of the season.
Heading into the final series of the first half of the Florida State League season, the Miracle owned a slim one-game lead in the South Division standings and Lujan sounded like he’s enjoying the playoff race with his teammates.
“Overall yeah, Awesome teammates, the team chemistry right now is fantastic. We’re lucky enough to be in a playoff race, to clinch the first half. I wouldn’t want any other guys behind me, so it’s pretty awesome.”
Manager Toby Gardenhire OK’d Lujan hitting ground balls to infielders during batting practice. “He always comes out and hits fungos. He doesn’t want to shag out in the outfield with the outfielders, so I said, ‘whatever you want to do, just don’t get hurt.’”
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