(NOTE: The following feature story by Associate Director of Athletics Communications Kevin Warner is the full copy of a condensed version that appeared in the football game program Sept. 10, 2011 vs. Central Connecticut State)
As a freshman in 2009, there was occasional helmet slamming, bat pounding and mounting frustration as Jake Lowery struggled to conquer the mental side of college baseball and fell short of meeting his own lofty expectations.
"Jake was very talented when he came in and very smart, the son of a coach," reminisced JMU head coach Spanky McFarland. "So he had the background working for him. But he was an emotional train wreck when he got here. He tried too hard and got visibly upset about failure."
Despite his .243 average and 50 strikeouts in 115 at bats, JMU coaches recognized the raw talent that Lowery possessed and their faith was rewarded.
As a sophomore, Jake saw substantial growth to his game. Though he played in a platoon at catcher, he started twice in most of JMU's three-game series in the CAA. He hit .285 with 11 doubles, eight home runs and 41 RBIs and picked up Second Team All-CAA honors. His increased production was a positive sign for a potential breakthrough junior year.
Still, no one could foresee exactly what Lowery had in store. Associate head coach Jay Sullenger, who served as Lowery's hitting coach with the Dukes, marvels at the leap made in year three. He said, "One of the really impressive things about what Jake did was he had a solid year the year before, but [his junior year] was so much more than a step up. I don't know how to describe it.
"Jake was primed for a good year and to get better. He was a junior, a coach's kid and had a lot asked of him. But he didn't even have double-digit home runs in his first two years combined. He went from that to 24 home runs and overnight becoming the best catcher in the nation. If you look at the numbers, he was the best overall hitter in the nation. Before that, you would have just described him as having a good arm and a lot of potential."
Junior infielder Bradley Shaban has been playing on various teams with Lowery since middle school. He witnessed Lowery's development as well as anyone but still couldn't predict what was in store for the fellow Cosby graduate. Shaban commented, "I had no idea that was going to happen. I knew from playing with him as a freshman and the previous summer in Petersburg that he had great at bats. It seemed like every time he got out he was lining out or making good contact. But I've never seen anybody hit as well as he hit that whole year, consistently. It never seemed like he had a bad game, maybe a few bad at bats before making an adjustment later in the game. I couldn't have called it, [the year that he had]."
McFarland added, "The natural growth I anticipated, going from one home run to eight. You could see him getting stronger and smarter and more under control. I thought he'd have a good year by hitting 14 or 15 home runs and helping us win some games. But he went over and above. There's no way you can anticipate what he did."
"Over and above" is putting it mildly for the catcher from Midlothian who merely orchestrated one of the most offensively dominant seasons in CAA history. Lowery hit .359 in a school-record 61 games as the everyday catcher. He led the nation with 200 total bases, 80 runs and 91 RBIs. He set or matched school records for triples (8), home runs (24), total bases, RBIs and extra-base hits (54), many by substantial margins.
McFarland has been a college baseball coach for over 30 years and had to think long and hard about other single-season performances to compare with Lowery's 2011 season. He noted, "Obviously, you have to compare it to Kellen [Kulbacki] in 2006. I was also at Florida State when Jeff Ledbetter was there. Along with Jake, those were the three best seasons in my career."
Sullenger added, "With the improvement he made from one season to the next, overnight he had a Kellen Kulbacki-esque year. In JMU terms, when you say the name Kellen, you're saying remarkable things."
Similar to Lowery, Kulbacki had a monumental jump from 2005 to 2006 when he hit .464 with 17 doubles, 24 home runs and 75 RBIs before being named the National Co-Player of the Year. Ledbetter smashed 42 home runs with 273 total bases in 1982 with the Seminoles en route to 97 career round trippers and an eventual pro career.
What does Lowery think of the comparison? "It's an honor and pretty humbling," said Lowery at the mention of Kulbacki's name. "He was a first rounder and had a great couple of seasons. To be in that category with him... he's the guy everyone knows about."
How did the same player who hit .269 and combined for nine home runs in his first two collegiate seasons emerge to become the National Hitter of the Year?
"It was just one of those things where everything came together," stated Lowery. "I prepared myself after my sophomore season to come back and be the guy to catch every game. I told myself 'this is what I want to do for the rest of my life and I need to show it in the spring.' I didn't try to think ahead to the next game or the next at bat. I focused on the task at hand and stayed in the moment, stayed within myself. It helped that I didn't have any injuries and stayed pretty durable."
The mental part of the game has always been key to McFarland, and both Lowery and Kulbacki have credited that mental toughness and the ability to remain even-keeled in all situations as being paramount to the leaps they took into the national spotlight.
Perhaps the most impressive part about Lowery's season was the absence of a noticeable slump, something experienced at some juncture during a grinding season by most players. McFarland added, "He just grew up emotionally and mentally. He was better able to turn the page and look forward. I kept waiting for a slump to happen because everyone goes through it. But he'd have a bad game and just pick himself up. The next day when you saw him, you couldn't tell if he had gone 0-for-4 or 4-for-4 the day before. He made great strides in that area."
Besides the mental growth, Sullenger also witnessed substantial mechanical adjustments to Lowery's approach at the plate in year three. He commented, "Similar to some of the great hitters we've had here from [Eddie] Kim to Kulbacki to [Mike] Butia, there's a lot of natural, God-given ability to begin with and as a coach, you try not to mess that up. But he learned a lot about his load and developing the ability to use all fields. That changes what you can do as a hitter and it becomes more difficult to get you out. Because of that, it gave him more time to see some pitches and hit the breaking ball better. Previously the scouting report would have said you can get him out inside late, but he did a great job making adjustments and a lot of his home runs came pulled down the line."
The mental and mechanical growth were joined by a maturization in leadership. "He's not a rah-rah guy," commented McFarland. "But he's very good at recognizing situations and leading by example. I asked our sophomores this year, when you were a freshman last year, who's the guy who took you under his wings and talked to you about college baseball and helped you out. Many of them said Jake. In all areas, he's a hard guy to replace."
As much as Lowery enjoys discussing the individual numbers he posted in 2011, it is apparent that the team success meant even more to him. The Dukes went 42-19 for their third-highest win total ever. He was a key cog for a JMU offense that shattered school season records for runs, RBIs, triples, hit batters and sacrifice flies.
After finishing first in the regular season, JMU swept through the CAA tournament to capture its second conference title in four years. "Every time you enter a new season, you want to improve on last year," Lowery said of the Dukes finishing first in 2010 but coming up short in the CAA Tournament. "We finished first again and people at the tournament were saying that we wouldn't win it because the No. 1 seed hadn't won in so long. But we got great pitching, great hitting and great defense and it all came together. It was a thrill. That's something every college player wants to do, win a championship."
The success continued for JMU. As the No. 3 seed at the NCAA Chapel Hill Regional, the Dukes knocked off No. 2 FIU and No. 4 Maine to record their best postseason finish since the 1983 College World Series run. Lowery added, "It was like a dream come true. That's what you play for in college, to be in a regional. We got to go out there and show what we could do."
Once the season finally came to a close, the postseason awards piled up quickly for Lowery. He was named Player of the Year by the CAA, the Virginia Sports Information Directors (VaSID) and the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC). He was recognized as an All-American by seven different organizations. Ultimately, the awards reached a pinnacle as he was named the best catcher in the nation by winning the Coleman Company-Johnny Bench Award and was named the nation's best hitter by CollegeBaseballInsider.com.
The Bench Award was presented in late June at a ceremony in Wichita with Johnny Bench, perhaps the best catcher in Major League Baseball history, on site to hand out the award among three national finalists. Lowery attended with his parents, Lori and Tim, along with McFarland and JMU assistant coach Jason Middleton.
The award served as the final culmination to a spectacular season for Lowery. He said, "Being on the list of semifinalists was pretty cool. When it got down to the final three, it took me back a little that other people are actually noticing me beyond JMU. It means so much as an honor for the best catcher. They looked at the entire body of work, defense, offense, the ability to call a game and help a pitcher hold runners. I got to talk to Johnny Bench for two days and soak up knowledge from him. When I heard my name called, I was very humbled. It was a pretty special experience and definitely the top award that I got."
"When we went out there, I was telling Jake that it's just an honor to be voted in the final three," recalled McFarland. "We all think he's the best in the country, but we play in a middle-size conference and we're a middle-size school. I thought this was as good as it was going to get and tried to prepare everyone, even though in my heart, I thought he was the best. But it was nice that they really looked closely at the stats, and the fact that the team also did well helped Jake's case. It was a fun couple of days to hang out with Johnny Bench. Growing up in southern Ohio, it was a dream come true. I know for his dad, it was like heaven being there. It was good for JMU to spread the word that we have a pretty good baseball program."
Three weeks prior to the Bench Award, Lowery became the 57th player in JMU history to be chosen in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft as the Cleveland Indians selected him in the fourth round. He actually left the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, the Indians' Class A Short Season affiliate in the New York-Penn League, for a few days to attend the Bench ceremony.
"It was one of the top days of my life," commented Lowery thinking back to draft day. "I went into it thinking I was going to go and everything worked out for me. The Indians gave me an opportunity and I'm enjoying every second. It was rewarding to know that if you put in hard work you can reach your goals."
Just 10 days after being drafted and 12 days after JMU's season came to a close, Lowery found himself hitting cleanup as a professional baseball player. "I got there that day and didn't know anyone or what to do. I figured I'm probably not going to play right away, but then I was in as the DH and hitting fourth. I got up there and told myself to keep it simple. It was the same game of baseball I'd been playing for 20 years."
According to his hitting coach with the Scrappers, Tony Mansolino, it was easy to identify Lowery as a key player for the team. "Right out of the gate, he swung the bat well," commented Mansolino. "I told our manager he's probably the best guy we have in terms of getting the barrel to the ball. He has a good smooth swing and not a lot of extra movement. He has a good idea of the strike zone, which shows with leading the league in walks. He has the combined package of power and patience. We identified him early as a guy to make an impact for us."
With just a handful of games remaining in the season, Lowery's average stood around .250, but he was in the lineup nearly every day while splitting time between catcher, designated hitter and first base. While the average was down from his JMU spring campaign, the power and RBI numbers continued to be consistent as Lowery was leading the 14-team league in doubles (23) and extra-base hits (30) while ranking fifth with 43 RBIs.
Lowery has also continued to be the same player to lead by example with the Scrappers. Mansolino remarked, "As far as a lifestyle, this isn't all that glamorous. This is not the big leagues or even Double-A or Triple-A. But in terms of handling it all, Jake's a rock. He's been one of the leaders here. He's one of the older guys, as we have a lot of guys drafted out of high school, but he's also still learning himself. He's handled himself professionally and has been a blessing to the coaches."
After 61 college games and 70 pro games, one might think that Jake's ready to lay low and relax for the fall, but he has no such plans. Lowery is back at JMU for the fall semester to continue pursuing his degree with a few classes and a practicum working in JMU's Athletics Communications office. He will do that while also leaving for a month to go to Arizona for fall instructional workouts with the Indians.
For Lowery, there was no doubt that he would finish his degree. "My parents have really instilled in me to finish what you start. I knew I wanted to be a professional baseball player. I had a great opportunity and couldn't turn it down. But I wanted to finish my degree; you need that in this world. I have one year left and plan to chip away at it and try to finish in the next few years. That's one of my career goals, to finish my degree."