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Sunday, November 18, 2018

Baseball

Versatile player hopes to bring dual threat to the diamond


Sophomore Lael Lockhart Jr. has the fourth highest batting average on the team and is fourth in hits and third in RBIs. Thomas Dwyer / The Cougar.

Finding success on both offense and defense is challenging at the best of times and near impossible at the worst in baseball. But playing both sides is something sophomore Lael Lockhart Jr. has done in more ways than one since he was a toddler.

“I think my first at-bat was right handed and my second at-bat was left handed in tee-ball, and I just kept going,” Lockhart said. “Never looked back.”

Lockhart has been pitching and hitting at a high level since high school, but what truly sets him apart is his intensity, head coach Todd Whitting said.

“You can watch him play and tell how competitive a kid he is. I knew instantly when I met him and watched him play,” Whitting said.

Lockhart credits part of his mentality to the Boston Red Sox’s infielder Dustin Pedroia, who he’s looked up to more than any other player.

“Pedroia has a lot of heart, gets real dirty. He’s never clean when he gets off the field at the end of the game,” Lockhart said. Pedroia has won two World Series with the Red Sox, something Lockhart believes he can imitate by winning the College World Series for UH.

Friendswood roots

Lockhart played as a pitcher and a first basemen in high school and was rated the top first basemen in Texas and No. 12 in the country by Perfect Game USA. Teams all over the country approached him, but the Friendswood native chose to stay in town.

“UH is real close to home. I loved the coaches, the facilities, and they kinda sold me on the new locker room coming in,” Lockhart said, “I just think it’s going to be awesome.”

Another key factor was getting to play with teammates from his summer team, the Houston Banditos. Players keep sharp in the summer with independent teams while their high school teams are not in action, and there he played with many of his future UH teammates.

“I had a bunch of buddies on my travel ball team that were committed here, so I knew what the caliber of talent was going to be here and that we were going to be able to compete with top 25 teams,” Lockhart said.

Lockhart was correct in his assumption, as he played in 56 of Houston’s 63 games last season and hit key RBIs in wins against ranked opponents UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton, and USF.

Usually batting fifth or sixth in the order, Lockhart was responsible for cleaning up after the core hitters and had a .279 batting average and 27 RBIs during the season.

This season, Lockhart is hitting .287 as one of the core hitters and already has 26 RBI with at least 15 games left in the season.

Lockhart ended the season hitting .417 for 5 RBI at the NCAA tournament before the Cougars fell to Texas A&M at the regional final.

Lockhart has a 2.70 ERA, 13 strikeouts and two saves in 13.1 innings pitched across nine appearances this season. | Thomas Dwyer / The Cougar

Return to the mound

With a year of experience under his belt and holes left behind by players drafted to the majors and graduated, Lockhart got the chance to pitch again.

“We didn’t pitch him at all last year because we needed his bat in the lineup, but we knew we were going to pitch him this season and that he would play a big part,” Whitting said.

Lockhart could have been nervous after not pitching for a whole year, but the Cougars’ new pitching coach, Terry Rooney, gave him a new outlook at UH.

“(Rooney) really loved what I had. He gave me confidence to go out there and show what I got,” Lockhart said.

Rooney’s 20 years of experience in head and assistant coaching roles has taught him a lot, Lockhart said, but his first starting performances did not go perfectly.

Lockhart loaded the bases early in games against Rice and Sam Houston but got himself out of both situations with just two total runs allowed. Afterward, Lockhart found a rhythm and allowed just three runs across seven innings with eight strikeouts against the two rivals.

Whitting was not worried by the shaky starts and reaffirmed his confidence in the pitcher.

“His collegiate experience is pretty slim right now, so he’s just got to get out there and learn to find his own (rhythm) a little bit,” said Whitting.

Lockhart agreed that once he found a rhythm he was able to get comfortable and get to work.

“Absolutely, once we started rocking and rolling it was just set, go, fire,” Lockhart said.

Despite his past success, Lockhart said it is his respect for his opponents and never taking an at-bat for granted that makes him a strong pitcher.

“It doesn’t matter who’s hitting. It can be the one-hole, three-hole or the nine-hole, I’m still going to treat them all the same and try to strike everybody out that comes up to the plate,” Lockhart said.

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