Growing up and playing baseball with his older brother and his friends, Nathan Lukes was used to being the scrawny overachiever.
But while his brother Shea kept sprouting – he topped out at 6-foot-3 – Nathan’s growth spurt was far less dramatic.
“Yeah, I don’t know what happened,” said a smiling Nathan Lukes, who has morphed from freshman walk-on to an All-Western Athletic Conference standout at Sacramento State. “I guess I got the bad part of the genes. I’ve been told my whole life that I’m too small. I kind of feed off that and like to prove people wrong.”
Through persistence and hard work, Lukes has developed into one of the better players in Sac State history. The junior right fielder leads the team in slugging percentage (.529), on-base percentage (.448) and batting average (.353).
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The former Center High School standout had a run-scoring double and a record-tying two-run homer in the Hornets’ 7-1 win over UC Davis on Tuesday night at Raley Field. Lukes equaled the Hornets’ record for career hits (229) set by Aurelio Jackson from 1998 to 2001. He just missed breaking the mark when UCD right fielder Tanner Bily chased down Lukes’ hard shot into deep right center in the eighth inning.
The record likely will fall this weekend when the Hornets (26-23, 12-9) host Northern Colorado (16-24, 12-9) in a three-game WAC series – a doubleheader Saturday and a game Sunday – that was moved from Greeley to John Smith Field because of inclement weather.
Lukes is now 5-11 and a sturdy 180 pounds, enough of a size stretch to make him a Major League Baseball draft prospect.
He has some good attributes. He bats left-handed, is fast around the bases (he’s tied for the Hornets’ career lead in triples with nine) and has a strong arm. He’s tough to strike out, and he’s starting to show more pop. Six of his eight Sac State career home runs have come this season.
“We’re hearing that he may be taken anywhere from the sixth to the 12th round,” Hornets coach Reggie Christiansen said. “I don’t anticipate him coming back for his senior year. He’s done everything he can do at this level.”
Lukes deflects talk about the draft because the Hornets finally appear to be hitting their stride in an up-and-down season. They own a promising four-game winning streak and have secured a WAC tournament playoff berth after sweeping Chicago State last weekend.
Though a regular-season title repeat is impossible, Sac State hopes to repeat as the WAC tournament champion and return to the NCAA Division I playoffs.
“When we won the tournament and we were in that dogpile, it was the best feeling I’ve ever had,” Lukes said of the Hornets’ historic 2014 season. “Our freshmen are coming around. They’re definitely starting to step up at the plate.”
If Lukes has an affinity for key freshman contributors such as first baseman Vinny Esposito (Granite Bay), third baseman Dan Deely, second baseman P.J. Floyd (Whitney), center fielder Bronson Grubbs (Plesasant Grove) and designated hitter Devin Lehman (Granite Bay), it’s because he fondly remembers his first season with the Hornets.
Lukes had a dominating career at Center, where he was the Pioneer Valley League MVP as a senior.
“We finished tied for third, yet he won the MVP,” Center coach Jeff Wise said. “So that shows the kind of impact he had. He was the best hitter, pitcher and defensive player (at shortstop) in our league that season.”
But while Shea Lukes was pitching for Christiansen at Sac State, Nathan wasn’t on the coach’s recruiting list, though he eventually offered a walk-on opportunity.
Nathan soon realized why no college scouts had been knocking on his door.
“I remember the first day I stepped into Sac State’s dugout,” Lukes said. “I was 5-10 and 150 pounds. It was unreal how much bigger everyone was. I felt so small.”
But during fall ball, Lukes didn’t strike out. So when the Hornets opened the 2013 season at Texas, Lukes found his name in the leadoff spot on the lineup card.
“All of sudden my heart started pounding,” Lukes said. “That had to be the most nervous I have ever been.”
In Lukes’ first college at-bat, the Texas pitcher went 3-0 in the count, then threw a pitch Lukes thought was out of the strike zone.
“It was letter high, so I dropped my bat and started toward first base,” Lukes said. “I heard the umpire call it a strike. There were 6,000 fans all blowing me up. They were booing me. It was so loud, but it’s a moment that has driven me ever since.”
Lukes grounded out to shortstop but later doubled in the 6-5 loss. It was the first of what is now 162 consecutive starts for the Hornets.
“I’m just thankful Reggie gave me the opportunity,” said Lukes, now on scholarship. “I wasn’t expecting to get this far. I never expected pro scouts would be watching me. It’s unreal. It just shows what hard work and dedication can get you.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.
BY THE NUMBERS
Nathan Lukes has appeared in 162 games for Sacramento State during his three-year career. Here are some of his key stats by season: