TAMPA — In perhaps the most surprising development from Yankees camp so far this spring, non-roster invitee Lucas Luetge has arguably been New York's most dominant pitcher.
The left-hander has struck out 10 of the 14 batters he's faced over four innings of work, allowing only two base hits in that span.
Yup, that's not a typo. His strikeout-per-nine rate after another two-strikeout performance on Thursday against the Phillies is 22.50 this spring.
Luetge hasn't pitched in the Majors since 2015, the final season of a four-year stint with the Seattle Mariners. In the six years since then, the lefty has donned five different uniforms during spring training, biding his time for his next opportunity at the big-league level.
Asked this week about his lengthy quest to get back to the show, Luetge acknowledged that Tommy John surgery along the way took about a year and a half out of the picture. Otherwise, it feels as long as it's been.
"I'm ready to get back, that's for sure," Luetge said in a Zoom call on Wednesday.
If you've been watching Yankees games this spring, and weren't previously aware of Luetge's ongoing big-league hiatus, you might've thought the southpaw was one of New York's late-inning relievers.
His curveball has been sharp, his fastball has blown hitters away and he's been relatively efficient, throwing just 62 pitches through those four frames.
"Everybody in my position as a non-roster invitee knows the results do matter for us," Luetge said. "Especially early, first impressions matter. So, pretty much I think everybody in my situation does the same as I did. Come in ready. Not midseason form, but not March form."
Earlier in the week, Yankees manager Aaron Boone recognized that success that Luetge has been having so far, revealing that the organization was excited to sign him this winter.
In fact, according to Luetge, New York also attempted to sign the left-hander last season as well. The 33-year-old ended up picking the Athletics and with no injuries or underperforming arms in Oakland's bullpen throughout a shortened campaign, Luetge was stuck in the Alternate Site all season long.
So, when the Yankees came calling once again a few months ago, it was a no-brainer for him to finally put on the pinstripes.
"Last year, I ended up going with Oakland, but then [the Yankees] backed it up again this year and contacted me again the first day," he recalled. "It showed me that they really were like truly interested. And it's playing for the Yankees. I grew up watching them. I was a big [Andy] Pettitte fan, he went to my junior college. It's something I wanted to do and it felt right."
Even if Luetge has shined in exhibition games thus far, there wasn't necessarily a spot available for him entering camp. That may have changed this week.
Setup man Zack Britton, who is also left-handed, will be out of commission for the next several months as he recovers from elbow surgery to remove a bone chip. That means an additional spot has opened up as a loaded list of hurlers contend to be featured in New York's bullpen.
While Luetge wouldn't be a direct replacement for Britton, appearing in the most high-leverage situations off the bat, he's certainly pitching his way into consideration to earn a spot in the 'pen. Boone has spoken about just how deep this Yankees' pitching staff is in 2021, but no one else is throwing the baseball as well as Luetge.
Further, the veteran would bring versatility to the bullpen, providing Boone with yet another arm capable of working multiple frames in one outing. Should he make the roster, he would be the third lefty in the 'pen as well (in addition to closer Aroldis Chapman and southpaw Justin Wilson).
"I feel like I can bring a little bit everything," Luetge said. "I've pitched long out of the bullpen, I've pitched short. Even last year and the alt site, I asked to pitch three innings every outing for a couple weeks just to build my résumé to show that I'm not just a lefty-lefty situational guy."
No matter how well Luetge pitches over the next three weeks, leading up to Opening Day on April 1, roster cuts will be made based upon a variety of factors. Track record, contractual agreements, minor-league options, splits and more will play a role in who gets the nod on the Opening Day roster.
Nonetheless, Luetge has grabbed Boone's attention. Only time will tell if he can hold on just long enough to be penciled in on the 26-man roster.
"He's an interesting guy and he had our attention early in camp," Boone said. "Obviously his performance has validated that and continues to keep him very much in the conversation."
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