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Luetge goes from small town to big find

SEATTLE -- Lucas Luetge has come a long way. A long way from Industry, Texas, a town of 300 with one blinking stop light and two convenience stores, one owned by his mom and dad, where he used to cook pizza and help work in the car wash outside.

A long way from the Bellville High Brahmas, where he was the starting pitcher on the baseball team and point guard on the basketball team for a school with an enrollment of about 670 for four grades.

A long way even from this Spring Training with the Mariners, where he showed up In Peoria, Ariz., wondering where he might fit in with a team that selected him in the Rule 5 Draft as a left-handed reliever, but then brought in a half-dozen veterans to compete for the same position.

Then again, Luetge is a competitor. He grew up competing in Industry -- for blue ribbons at county fairs where his family showed pigs. Yup. Luetge is about as rural American as you can get, and he doesn't mind sharing the stories of his upbringing, smiling at the memories that must seem a million miles from the Major League cities and stadiums where he's now competing as a reliever for the Mariners.

"We have a little country in us," he said with a grin. "I know how to walk a pig, that's for sure. That was a big deal, county fairs and all that. Just showing animals. We were the pig guys."

Thus, long before Luetge signed his first professional baseball contract after getting chosen in the 21st round by Milwaukee when Jack Zduriencik was running the Brewers' Draft in 2008, he was cashing checks for prize money from 4-H shows.

"I did that from fifth or sixth grade through high school," he said. "I know some weird things about pigs."

Luetge (pronounced LIT-key) also helped his parents, Rocky and Melissa, with their convenience store/car wash/gas station. His folks bought the store about 10 years ago and naturally called on their three sons to help out when possible.

"I used to clean out the car wash," Luetge said. "And car washes in the country are a little different than the city. You have trailers come in with cow crap and all that, so they get nice and dirty."

"It was evident early on he had a breaking ball that could get left-handers out, which is the first thing you think about with a left-on-left guy."
-- Eric Wedge,
on Lucas Luetge

Now fast forward to February of this year, when Luetge showed up in camp as a quiet youngster who'd put up a 3.16 ERA for Double-A Huntsville in the Southern League in 2011. Zduriencik plucked him in the Rule 5 Draft, but immediately indicated Luetge was little more than a lefty who'd get a look and faced "an uphill climb" in landing the necessary 25-man roster spot to keep him in Seattle for a full year.

It's not like Luetge was a prized prospect for Milwaukee. After two years at San Jacinto Junior College, he had a marginal year as a starter at Rice University and then was drafted by the Brewers. After last season, he was a 24-year-old in Double-A who wasn't on Milwaukee's 40-man roster, which is why the Mariners could land him in the Rule 5 Draft.

When Luetge arrived in Peoria, he seemed lost in the early shuffle. Yeah, he'd get his look, but what were the chances he'd survive on a team that had brought in left-handed veterans George Sherrill, Hong-Chih Kuo and Oliver Perez to compete with returnees Charlie Furbush, Mauricio Robles and Cesar Jimenez?

"I don't think he was on anybody's radar when he came to camp," said manager Eric Wedge.

In his first outing, Luetge was so shaky that he told himself he needed to get his mind and body under control so he didn't feel so awkward. But once he realized it was still just baseball, even in his first Major League camp, he started throwing strikes. And competing. And hanging around as various left-handers kept getting released or sent down to the Minors.

He was taken to Tokyo as part of the 30-man roster, still sticking, still showing what he could do. And when the final cut to 25 came just prior to the U.S. opener in Oakland on April 6, Luetge got on the phone and called his wife, Lacie, who he's gone out with since their junior year of high school in Bellville, and his parents back in Industry.

"My wife has been going through all this with me, and my parents have been with me since Little League," he said. "My dad coached me when I was little and then videotaped every game and would talk to me after every high school game.

"He was speechless when I told him. This was all of our dreams."

What had elevated Luetge in Wedge's eyes as camp progressed?

"The way he handled both left- and right-handers is what comes to mind," said Wedge, who has never had a Rule 5 Draft pick last a full season in his nine years as a Major League manager. "It was evident early on he had a breaking ball that could get left-handers out, which is the first thing you think about with a left-on-left guy. But the way he was able to handle the right-handers right along with that, that's what separated him."

Luetge has performed well so far. In Cactus League play, he had 11 strikeouts and one walk in 7 2/3 innings. And in three regular-season appearances, he's yet to allow an earned run in 1 2/3 innings with three strikeouts.

He picked up his first Major League victory with 1 1/3 innings of scoreless relief against the Rangers on Wednesday, striking out Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz in the process.

Not bad for the first Major League player to hail from Industry. Though Luetge does note that one of his high school teammates and best friends at Bellville was Emmanual Saunders, now a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"We're not that big of a baseball area," said the 6-foot-4, 203-pounder. "It's more football. I mean, Texas, that whole 'Friday Night Lights' is pretty true. I really don't even know how I got into baseball. My dad just brought us into it.

"He played baseball and was a fast-pitch softball guy. So we never got into football. I don't know why. Everybody else was playing football in the fall, and I was playing baseball. But it worked out."

Worked out indeed. After coming to the Mariners as a long-shot lefty, the kid who used to show pigs is now showing the baseball world he can pitch.

Seattle Mariners, Lucas Luetge