Jensen Lewis lived the dream. And in many ways we all did, right along with him. Lewis, whose entire family is from Medina, Ohio, just a long toss length away from downtown Cleveland, grew up a diehard Tribe fan, so much so, in fact, that he speaks the language of the locale; to him, to us, the corner of Carnegie-and-Ontario will forever be known as “The Jake.”
Lewis was originally drafted by the Indians in the 33rd round coming out of high school, a position that “wasn’t high enough for me to forgo a full ride scholarship to Vanderbilt, so I decided to pass them up (my childhood dream team, no less).”
So the developing right-hander with the deceptively herky-jerky motion left the green – and sometimes brown – pastures of Ohio for prestigious Vanderbilt, an institution widely known for its academics but also for churning out some incredible talent – a pitching pipeline to professional baseball of sorts, something that became evident quite early on.
He would eventually team up with a pair of big leaguers: first, Jeremy Sowers, the former sixth overall pick by the Indians in 2004, and then future Tampa Bay ace David Price, who was a freshman during Lewis’ final season with the Commodores.
“We owe a great deal to Tim Corbin and former pitching coach Derek Johnson for the ‘pitching pipeline’ that is synonymous with Vanderbilt University. They believed in experiencing failure and developing hard-nosed, mentally tough guys through those experiences.”
As for evidence look no further than Lewis’ junior season: of the 11 pitchers to log at least eight innings in 2005, 10 would go on to professional ball.
It was during that junior season, his first as a fulltime starting pitcher, where Lewis’ name started jumping up the draft charts. After striking out 95 and walking just 23 in his 92.2 innings, Lewis had an inkling that the Red Sox, whom had him in for a private workout just weeks leading up to the draft, would call his name at the end of the second round.
They didn’t. And as luck would have it just as Lewis was ready to close himself “off from reality for a few hours” the call came.
“Scott Barnsby, my Cleveland Indians area scout, called to tell me he’d been fighting for me all day with the Tribe front office in the war room. He’d gotten his wish and I was going to be selected with the 102nd overall pick, a compensation pick for one of my favorite Indians of all time – Omar Vizquel.”
And Barnsby was dead on. The former Commodores hurler would be the fourth most productive player chosen in the third round in 2005.
After blowing through the minor leagues, Lewis would make the jump from low Class A in 2005 all the way to Cleveland in 2007 – right in the thick of a playoff race – debuting, no less, on his father’s birthday, providing him the perfect present – the game ball.
“My rookie year probably is the most unforgettable year in my pro career: getting called up after the All-Star break in 2007, winning the AL Central at home in front of our fans at The Jake, the walk-off single by Travis Hafner in Game 2 of the ALDS vs. the Yankees, being the last team in old Yankee Stadium history to win a playoff series, falling one game short of the World Series to the Red Sox.”
Then, right in between strokes on a keyboard, Lewis’ hometown roots shined as brightly as ever.
“To be an integral part of that team meant so much, not only in baseball terms, but growing up visualizing it as a kid – wanting so badly to pitch in front of a sold out Jacobs Field and get postseason outs. You can’t help getting goose bumps thinking about it every time.”
It was in that Division Series against the Yankees, the Evil Empire, where Lewis pitched the greatest inning of his life.
The scene: October 7; Game 3 of the ALDS; the Indians are up 8-3, bottom of the seventh inning. Due up for the Yankees: Derek Jeter, Bobby Abreu, and Alex Rodriguez.
“Every pitcher can remember their finest outing with ease, but what I can remember distinctly from that outing is having one of the most electric fastballs of the season. My bullpen to warm up was just average, but as soon as I heard Derek Jeter’s walkout music, ‘I Run New York’ by Jay-Z, my heartbeat just went through the roof. The adrenaline was so high and I just remember thinking, ‘leave it all out here, man, what a stage you’re on.”
It was left out there. Every glorious fastball, every childhood dream, every ounce of fortitude melded together like a thunderbolt from the baseball gods. Three up. Three down. Three strikeouts, all on swings-and-misses.
Jensen Lewis took each of us, the Clevelanders, on a ride that night, something that’s etched not only in his memory but ours as well. He beat the odds and not only pitched in the big leagues, but also for his favorite team. And he plans on writing about it again, a retelling of his story, our story, in vivid detail that’s only justified by a first person telling.
For now, though, Lewis’ baseball thoughts can be found on Rotowire (click here) and on Twitter (@JLEWFifty).
Please check him out.
Also seen on It’s Pronounced Lajaway, an ESPN SweetSpot Blog.
Photo Courtesy of Jared Wickerham/Getty Images North America via zimbio.com.