06/16/2019 1:47 PM
Don't give up on your dreams. That's the advice of thousands of parents, teachers, and coaches around the world. However, when one's dream is shut down, not everyone has the motivation to keep fighting for it. Big Train pitcher Chase Lee (Alabama) is not one to quit.
Lee, a native of McCalla, Alabama, played baseball his entire childhood. He went on to attend McAdory High School in McCalla, but it wasn't until his junior year that he began to learn the craft of pitching. Admittedly there was no immediate dominance for the right-hander who said he simply wasn't very good.
"I was average," Lee said of his early pitching days. "I didn't throw very hard, I just got enough outs and was able to throw multiple days without getting sore, so they just threw me out there."
After wrapping up his high school career, Lee moved on the University of Alabama. The school perhaps known best as a football juggernaut also features a baseball program that has appeared in five College World Series and won 14 Southeastern Conference (SEC) championships.
Despite pitching in his final high school seasons, Lee attempted to walk on to the Crimson Tide's 2018 varsity roster as a shortstop. Things would not go as planned, as the incoming freshman did not make the team.
"He wasn't what we needed as an infielder," Alabama head coach Brad Bohannon said of the decision to cut Lee. "But we liked his arm, so we suggested he try pitching for us."
Not only did Bohannon want Lee to move to the mound, but he also wanted him to try something that doesn't work for many: throwing sidearm.
Many coaches caution against pitching with a sidearm delivery. It can lead to a higher risk of injury, and most pitchers aren't able to do it effectively; however, Bohannon felt it would lead to a significant increase in velocity.
"Once we got him on the mound, we realized there was something there but that he wasn't quite what we were looking for,” Bohannon said of watching Lee pitch with a conventional motion. "I suggested he try a different arm slot, put on some weight to add to his velocity and come back the next year."
Armed with this new advice, Lee went to work learning to throw sidearm. "I got a high school coach, and we worked on it."
That work would pay off. As a member of the University of Alabama club baseball team in 2018, Lee posted a 7-0 record and an incredible 0.21 ERA. The tremendous season earned him multiple accolades as he was named the team's Most Valuable Player, earned Rawlings National Club Baseball Association First Team All-American honors and NCBA South Atlantic First Team All-Region honors.
Throughout the club season, Lee’s velocity took the jump the Alabama coaching staff was looking for. After coming into walk-on tryouts throwing 82 miles per hour, Lee was throwing in the 90s with his new arm slot.
Coach Bohannon was blown away by Lee's club season and willingness to switch arm slots in order to improve.
"Chase's dedication to getting better and his willingness to adjust are a big part of who he is and really shows what type of player he is committed to becoming," Bohannon said. "He is one of the hardest workers I've ever coached, and it shows by him sticking with a throwing program and continuing to get better over his year on the club team."
Despite all the praise, coach Bohannon nor anyone else on the Alabama coaching staff reached out to Lee about joining the team in 2019. Instead, the motivated pitcher reached out to them.
"I sent them a follow-up email and told them how my year went,” Lee said. But the email didn’t lead to an offer, so it was back to square one: walk-on tryouts.
Though he liked Lee's potential, Bohannon was surprised to him at tryouts. "Surprisingly, Chase did come back, which most players at walk-on tryouts don't."
Not only did Lee come back, but he came and conquered. "I had a decent tryout, and they decided to keep me around,” he humbly said of making the cut the second time around.
Making a roster in the SEC as a walk-on was one accomplishment, but once he made the cut, Lee then had to prove his worth. With the daunting task of facing some of the best hitters in the country game in and game out, he found a mentor in graduate senior closer, Jeremy Randolph.
"He taught me so much about baseball," Lee said of Randolph. Randolph taught Lee to believe in himself, have confidence and to keep in mind no one could take away the fact he finally accomplished his goal of making the roster.
Even with Randolph's advice, pitching in the SEC for the first time was going to big a challenge for Lee. "The first couple of weeks were a learning experience. I had to learn how to throw and minimize mistakes because mistakes don't do well in the SEC."
He surely learned how to minimize mistakes. The redshirt freshman had a dominant first season for the Tide this spring. He posted a 2.67 ERA appearing in 22 games and tossing 30.1 innings. In addition to a solid ERA, he struck out 24 batters, held batters to a .241 batting average against and did not any home runs.
His improved velocity coupled with his deceptive sidearm delivery presented a unique challenge for opposing hitters.
"Any sidearm guy is always very challenging," said John Ricotta, who faced Lee as a member of the Ball State Cardinals in 2019. "You aren't used to the arm angle. The ball usually has a lot of movement, so it's a tough adjustment to make as a hitter."
Bohannon was pleased with Lee's first season. "He took advantage of the opportunities he was given and carved himself out a very important role in our bullpen," the coach said.
Going forward Bohannon doesn't know Lee's exact role in the Alabama bullpen but does know a bright future is in store.
"We expect a lot of Chase going forward,” he said. “I am really excited to see how he continues to grow on the mound this upcoming season and in his Alabama baseball career."
With an impressive first season at Alabama in the books, Lee is spending the 2019 summer with the Bethesda Big Train. With Bethesda, he quickly took over the closer's role. After an outing on Opening Night in Silver Spring, manager Sal Colangelo said he'll be a "weapon" for the team this summer.
So far this season, Lee has been the weapon Colangelo said he would be, as he's posted a 1.67 ERA and has struck out 17 batters in just 11 innings of work.
His dominant start has quickly earned him trust from Colangelo and the rest of his summer coaching staff. After throwing 3.2 innings of hitless relief against the D.C. Grays on June 8th associate head coach Galvin Morris said: "Chase is legit. Every time we roll him out there we're comfortable."
A reason why Morris and the coaching staff is so comfortable with Lee on the mound is his movement. To go along with his improved velocity from the sidearm motion, Lee's offspeed pitches have movement that can be downright unhittable.
Catcher Jacob Southern (Jacksonville) enjoys catching Lee. "It's fun making hitters look stupid," the Big Train backstop said.
As for Big Train infielder Kris Kremer (Penn State), he considers himself lucky to play behind the pitcher known as "Viper," rather than squaring off against him at the plate.
"I'm very happy I don't have to face that (Lee)," Kremer said. "That kid's ball moves like crazy."
This summer, Bethesda fans should be excited to have the opportunity to watch Chase Lee dominant in their backyard while they can. He is on track to become an elite reliever in the SEC, and beyond that, who knows what new heights his sidearm delivery will take him to.
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