'Every kid had a Bradley shirt': BU-bound pitcher part of deep Washington baseball team

Adam Duvall
Journal Star
Junior Gus Lucas smiles as he rounds third base after hitting a home run during Washington's 7-2  win over Geneseo in the Class 3A Geneseo Super Sectional at Richmond Hill Park on Monday, June 14, 2021.

WASHINGTON — Water droplets raced down the windows outside Torry Gymnasium.

Another rainy spring day kept Washington off the baseball diamond as it held practice indoors for what seemed like already the 100th time. But the Panthers have seen their fair share of action, playing nine games with a 7-2 record during the 2022 season.

Last year’s Class 3A fourth-place finishers host another one of the Peoria-area’s top programs in Illinois Valley Central (6-1) for a 4:30 p.m. Friday first pitch. Weather pending, of course.

“This is seemingly a typical Illinois spring with, you know, all these long periods of rain,” Washington coach Kyler Wisher said.

The product, however, Wisher is putting on the field this season is anything but ordinary. Five senior starters — Gus Lucas, Easton Harris, Kyler Klings, Jack Limas and Caleb Wudtke — from that Final Four team are back for Washington.

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Lucas didn’t enter the lineup until the final nine games of last season. The 6-foot-5, 205-pound Bradley recruit slotted in the lineup as the designated hitter, hitting .360 with a home run, three runs and five RBIs.

“We missed him last year,” Wisher said. “Obviously, (we) had a great run, had we had him at full strength or normal strength, who know where that would have ended up.”

Nagging arm trouble that started prior to his junior year kept Lucas on the shelf. The left-handed pitcher experienced elbow pain early summer 2020 and rested his arm until the last start of the travel ball season where he felt fine again.

Lucas then suited up as the Washington quarterback that fall. Following an interception and in the process of tackling his opponent, he suffered an AC joint sprain in his left shoulder.

Washington's Gus Lucas hits a home run during Washington's 7-2  win over Geneseo in the Class 3A Geneseo Super Sectional at Richmond Hill Park on Monday, June 14, 2021.

Rest, rehab and luckily, no surgery, were the remedy for Lucas. He says he’s been working to keep his arm strong and making sure it is ready to go when he’s needed to pitch.

“Being healthy is just something you can’t take (for granted),” Lucas said, noting he feels 100 percent again. “I took (it for granted) my whole life, just being healthy.

“Now, that I have it again, it’s amazing.”

In two appearances this season, Lucas took the loss in his season debut as he struck out five with two walks and five runs given up against Mt. Vernon. He bounced back with an eight-strikeout effort over five innings in a win over Jacksonville.

Lucas is working up to being his old dominant self again, utilizing a quick-pitch style to go with his fastball, a developing curveball, changeup and slider.

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“We’re hoping for good things out of him this year,” Wisher said, “that we really haven’t seen since he was a freshman when we brought him up.”

That potential and ability is a big reason Lucas is committed to play for Bradley next season. Braves pitching coach Andrew Werner, a former Washington lefty and a 2012 San Diego Padres pitcher, was the lead recruiter on Lucas, who had Werner’s dad, Steve, as his seventh-grade science teacher.

Lucas calls the Braves a "great fit" and a "great school" and felt a "great connection with the coaching staff."

“I feel like every kid had some sort of a Bradley shirt growing up,” he said, “so you always think of that school. When they call you to try and get you to come to their school, you’re automatically like, ‘Alright, that sounds cool.’”

Washington's Easton Harris throws a pitch during Washington's 7-2  win over Geneseo in the Class 3A Geneseo Super Sectional at Richmond Hill Park on Monday, June 14, 2021. Harris threw just over five innings, giving up two runs.

Harris, who is the reigning Journal Star player of the year, is having yet another monster season. The Parkland College commit struck out seven, while recording a double and two RBIs in Tuesday’s 7-4 road win over Galesburg.

He’s been touching 89 mph and has attracted the interest of Bradley, which was out to see him earlier in the season. Wisher says he’s become a total player through his offseason workouts and how he carries himself as the team’s leader.

Hitting might be contagious, but it also helps having a senior around who not only believes in himself, but those playing with him.

“The farther you go along the season,” the 6-foot-2 shortstop said, “you see better teams bring better arms and us hitters become more confident at the plate. Pitchers become more confident seeing better hitters.

“That comes with success.”

High expectations surround Washington with its sights set on replicating 2021’s accomplishments. The Panthers play a loaded nonconference schedule with a brutal stretch to open Mid-Illini Conference play.

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Washington has Limestone, Dunlap and Morton for its first three league series.

“State championship, for sure,” Lucas said of how good Washington can be. “We got the pitching and hitting for it. … Very excited to see where we end up.”

Washington's Gus Lucas (left) and Josh Heyder celebrate after winning the Class 3A Geneseo Super Sectional 7-2 over Geneseo at Richmond Hill Park on Monday, June 14, 2021. Lucas and Heyder homered in the win.

“It’s kind of scary,” Wisher added, “because when you see the pitching depth that we’ve had in some of the younger guys. … If we continue to hit, you never want to sit here and say, ‘We’re going to win the conference again. We’re going to state.’ because those runs are special.

“If the trend continues how it’s been going, we’re going to be tough to beat.”

Adam Duvall is a Journal Star sports reporter. Email him at aduvall@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @AdamDuvall.