PORT CHARLOTTE — Josh Lueke is 29 years old. He is out of minor-league options. He’s had nine stints at the major-league level over the past three seasons, plenty of chances to prove he’s big-league material.
“Definitely,” he said. “I’m not getting any younger. I’ve got to get a move on.”
Though Rays manager Joe Maddon has yet to officially announce his bullpen, Lueke appears to have won a spot on the Opening Day roster.
Lueke knows being out of options makes it hard to keep him off the team. The Rays would risk losing him to another team if they tried to pass him through waivers.
But Lueke thinks he has earned his spot. He has pitched well this spring. He has allowed only three runs, and they all came against Toronto in Dunedin.
Lueke has shown he can handle minor-league hitters. He dominated at Triple-A Durham last season with a 0.63 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 571⁄3 innings and was 17-for-18 in save opportunities.
“I almost knew every time I went out, there was no way they could hit me,” Lueke said.
Now, it’s time for his major-league performance to catch up to his minor-league game.
“Catch up is the perfect terminology,” he said. “That whole transition for me has been kind of a really hellacious, bumpy process.”
Why? Maddon said it’s nothing more than Lueke becoming the same pitcher with Tampa Bay that he is at Durham.
“I know the hitters are good, but it’s all relative. He’s already faced those good hitters on those different levels and has been successful,” Maddon said. “His stuff plays. His skill is very high. So as he processes the day better he’ll be more successful.”
Toward that end, Maddon introduced Lueke to sports psychologist Ken Revizza, who returns this season to work with the Rays. Revizza and Lueke have spent time together this spring.
“A lot,” Maddon said. “That was my first Kenny thought, was Lueke. I want you to get to know this guy fast.”
Lueke said he has benefited from their talks.
“He helps me try to find some windows and steps and how to open doors and learn little triggers, breathing techniques, feeling the heart rate, visualization from pitch to pitch instead of looking at the end result,” Lueke said.
Revizza is helping Lueke focus on each pitch. He now visualizes where each pitch will go before throwing that pitch.
“It’s kind of like that where you’re just, BOOM. Like tunnel vision for that pitch. As soon as you let go of the ball, that’s it. Throw the ball, get the ball back, next pitch,” he said. “They seem to be working in spring. We’ll see how it plays on the big stage, whenever that comes.”
Lueke has appeared in 47 big-league games, including 22 with the Rays during the past two years. He has a 6.44 ERA in 571⁄3 innings and 56 strikeouts. Not quite the strikeout frequency he had during his climb through the minor leagues.
It’s not for lack of talent. Physically, Lueke has the tools to pitch at the major-league level. What he needs to improve is the mental side of his game.
“It’s just a matter of focusing and living in the moment 110 percent, where in that past it could kind of overwhelm me, and I would kind of forget what I was doing,” Lueke said. “I was hoping — hoping is a good word — hoping to get the out. Now I’m focusing on executing this pitch, and if I can execute the pitch, the results will come.”