TAMPA — After seeing his mom furtively taking phone calls around the house over the past few days, Lance McCullers was told to dress up Thursday for an interview with the MLB Network. When he arrived at the Jesuit baseball locker room, MLB Network analyst (and former big-league all-star) Sean Casey was waiting for him.
“It was such a good interview that I kept asking questions,” Casey said with a laugh. “And then we brought his parents in and said, ‘Hey, the real reason you’re here is because you’re the Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year.’ ”
An hour later, McCullers, dressed in a suit with a black striped tie, was in front of several TV cameras accepting the national honor — a first for a Jesuit player.
“I just want to thank everyone from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “I’m extremely honored to have my name on such a prestigious award.”
Other names on the trophy include current MLB all-stars Zack Greinke, Justin Upton and Alex Rodriguez. McCullers is the third winner from Tampa Bay, joining Seminole’s Casey Kotchman (2001) and Hillsborough’s Gary Sheffield, the inaugural winner in 1986.
In August, McCullers won the Jackie Robinson Award, given annually to the top rising senior in the country. His performance on the field
this season validated that selection, as he allowed just two earned runs in 77.1 innings for an ERA of 0.18. He also posted a 13-0 record with 140 strikeouts against 30 walks for Jesuit (28-2), which was ranked No. 1 in the country by ESPNHS, Baseball America and Perfect Game heading into the Class 5A state semifinals against eventual state champion Plantation American Heritage.
When he wasn’t pitching, he was in the field and third in the batting order, where he hit .280 with six doubles, two home runs, 21 RBIs, a team-high 27 runs scored and 10 stolen bases in 10 attempts.
Eight of the previous 10 winners have been top-10 picks in the first round of the MLB first-year players draft, which starts Monday.
McCullers was also recognized for his community service efforts, which include programs such as Challenger Baseball, the Special Olympics and Metropolitan Ministries.
“The stories of him working with the mentally and physically handicapped, pushing a wheelchair down to first base with a big smile on his face, helping a young girl that can’t use her arms swing a bat, that kind of stuff is what I’ll remember,” Jesuit coach Richie Warren said.
McCullers also received an invitation to the July ESPN ESPY awards. He will be joined by Berkeley Prep’s Jordan Burgess, the volleyball player of the year, and 10 other high school athletes. Two of them, one male and one female, will be named athlete of the year.
Laura Keeley can be reached at email@example.com