Evan Lee didn’t know it until he got to the dugout. His teammates, the Bryant Black Sox Senior American Legion coaches, the opposition and the fans on hand certainly had, and a low murmur whisked through the stands.
Engaged in a tough battle against an opposing batter in a showcase tournament at Memphis University, Lee fired a fastball that finally fanned him.
On the school’s scoreboard, the radar gun reading of each pitch of each game was flashed up for everyone to see, as at most Major League stadiums and many college parks. Though Lee had been throwing around 90 consistently, on that strikeout pitch, it read:
“The kid was battling him,” recalled Sox manager Darren Hurt. “Finally, Evan said, ‘Well, I guess I need about three more miles an hour to put this one away.’ And he did.”
Actually, it was long before that the head coach at the University of Arkansas Dave Van Horn and pitching coach Dave Jorn had become aware of the young lefty. In fact, it was the previous summer that Bryant Hornets head coach Kirk Bock had clued them in.
In the summer of 2013, Lee, the son of Mike and Catrena Lee, had gone 7-1 with a 1.60 earned run average and 51 strikeouts in 43 2/3 innings for the Bryant Everett Black Sox Junior American Legion team, helping them to State and Regional championships. He also led the team in hitting with a .443 average (51 of 115).
“I talked to Coach Van Horn,” Lee said, “and Coach Jorn came to see me pitch. The Saturday morning after the Regional, they came and offered me. I told my parents what had happened and went right back outside on the porch and committed. It was a 10-minute process.”
Lee followed through on that early commitment when, on Thursday, he officially signed a National letter of intent to continue his education and baseball career at the University of Arkansas in the fall of 2016.
“They’re getting a quality person, first of all, then also a quality baseball player, a multi-talented baseball player,” Bock said. “He can swing it. He can throw it.”
“Go in there, pitcher/outfielder, win you a spot,” said Lee when asked what the Arkansas coaches had told him of their expectations. “Do what you can do and wherever you find a hole or a spot, that’s where I’d play.”
“I don’t know if they’re going to use him as a dual guy but I do think they’re going to give him an opportunity to swing,” Bock related. “Obviously, he’s going to be on the mound somewhere. And I think he’s going to have a chance to compete for a role his freshman year.”
Since 2013 with the Sox and the Hornets, Lee, who is a member of the National Honor Society, is a combined 21-1 with an earned run average of 1.48. In 137.1 innings, he has struck out 157. He was 5-0 with a 1.29 for the Hornets last spring. During the summer, he was 6-0 with an 0.42 and led the team with a .460 average.
Over his career, he has compiled a composite average of .392 with 32 doubles, 11 triples, three home runs, 121 runs batted in and 57 steals.
Going into his senior season at Bryant, he’s been rated the No. 1 prospect in the State by Prep Baseball Report and is listed among the top 300 senior players nationally by Perfect Game.
Both Lee and classmate Zach Jackson, who also signed with the Razorbacks on Thursday, played for the Bryant High School team that won the 2014 Class 7A State championship. The Hornets were conference champions and State semifinalists in 2013, then conference runners-up and State quarterfinalists in 2015. Over the three seasons, the Hornets went 88-11 combined.
Lee was named all-conference as a junior in 2014 for Bryant High School.
The duo also played for Senior American Legion teams that compiled a record of 116-22 and won three consecutive State titles including a runner-up finish at the 2014 MidSouth Regional and a final four finish in 2015. Also, they contributed to Junior American Legion State championship teams that went 70-9 in 2013 and 2014 including that Regional Tournament title in 2013.
“The last two summers, we don’t do what we did without Evan and Zach,” Hurt stated.
Lee, who plans to major in Finance, acknowledged there were other schools recruiting him. “But I always had in mind that if I got offered by Arkansas, that’s where I’d go,” he said. “It’s my dream school. I felt at home there.
“I think my biggest strength is pitch ability,” said Lee. “I’m a competitor. I’m going to be in the game, no matter what the stage is. It doesn’t ever get too big for me. I feel that, no matter what, all the ratings or anything like that, I’m always going to be a competitor. That’s what we’ve been taught. That’s what we’ll do. We’re blue collar. We work hard for what we’ve accomplished and it just keeps going. The grind never stops.”
“I think from last summer to this summer, his body went through a lot of changes,” Bock observed. “He gained 30 pounds and that’s where he got his big leap I think. You know, he always had the mindset. He knew how to pitch and he had pitch ability, he just didn’t have the strength to go along with it. And right now, that’s what he’s got.”
Hurt added, “Just the last two summers, we’ve seen an elevation in the fastball of probably seven miles an hour. I don’t know where that ends.”
“His best pitch is a fastball, with movement,” Bock agreed. “Evan can come back with a good breaking ball. He’s got a fastball that’s going to run away from a righty but then he brings in a good sharp breaking ball back to them. Those are quality pitches. And we don’t look in terms of striking people out. We look in terms of getting people out. When he’s throwing those two things, he’s going to get a lot of people out.
“He’s a best of both worlds guy,” the coach continued. “You’ve got some guys that have flexibility, a Blaine Knight (who signed with Arkansas last year out of Bryant), that can run it up there at 90. Then you have body-mass guys that can run it up there at 90. Well, Evan’s got both of those. He’s got long leverage and he’s got some body mass now. That’s the reason he can throw the way he throws.”
Lee played basketball through his freshman season and football up until this season. As a junior last fall, he led the team in pass receptions with 38 for 566 yards and six touchdowns.
On the mound, along with the fastball and curve, Lee will mix in a change-up.
“Those pitches have come a long way also,” Hurt said of the off-speed stuff. “But the way he’s progressed over the last two summers from what I’ve seen has been as steep a climb as I’ve seen in anybody. So I’m not going to be surprised if it continues, because the kid works his tail off. There’s no secret he’s going to work harder than anybody. That’s why he’s gone up so quick.”
Lee passed around the credit for his success. “It was a group effort. I just want to thank all my teammates, my coaches, my strength trainer, my parents for supporting me — a lot of people got me where I am today. It wasn’t just me. Everything, besides me, all those people really got me where I am today. Without them, I wouldn’t be anywhere near this point.”
Lee, Jackson and Alex Shurtleff, who is set to sign with Harding University on Friday will all be back this spring for the Hornets, which makes Bock smile.
“Those are three quality arms and that really puts a little pressure on our defense,” he mentioned. “You’ve got to get it done for them because all three of them are going to give you a quality start every time they walk out there.”