The latest guest on C’s Chat is 2019 Vancouver Canadians pitcher Luke Gillingham.
The lefthander from Coronado, California was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 37th round of the 2016 MLB draft from the United States Naval Academy. He recalls where he was when he got the news.
“Where I was in 2016 was actually at my friend’s wedding. It was pretty late in the draft so at that point I didn’t think it would happen. I got the news, obviously very excited, had all my best friends around me at the time so it was perfect. I ended up singing ‘O Canada’ at my friend’s wedding because of it.”
Gillingham did not think he was going to get drafted at all.
“I didn’t hear a lot. I knew there was a little chatter with maybe the Mariners. The funny story about that is I didn’t think it was actually going to happen so I started getting questionnaires and they asked who my agent was or who would represent me so I put my older brother down as a joke. He ended up calling me asking why the Mariners and Blue Jays were contacting him about my professional career and if anything could happen so I learned the hard way on that one but it’s kind of a funny story in that regard.”
The signing scout for Gillingham was Doug Witt.
He did spend some time in Toronto as his father Bruce Gillingham was also in the Navy but it was all a blur to him.
“I was a baby but my Dad was stationed there so my family lived there for a little bit but unfortunately I don’t remember much.”
In The Navy
Gillingham went to the Navy after graduating from Coronado High School where he was a two-sport star in baseball and basketball. He was the team MVP in both sports and helped his school capture two league basketball championships.
Gillingham wound up missing his senior baseball season due to injury but was back on the mound for his freshman season with the Navy. He split time as a starter and reliever in his first year with the Midshipmen that saw him win four games and lose three with an earned run average of 3.23. He became a full-time starter in his sophomore season where despite a 2-6 record, the lefthander completed three games and posted a 3.33 ERA.
It was in his junior season that Gillingham broke through as he went 8-1 with a 1.19 ERA and struck out 111 batters in 83 innings to win the Patriot League Triple Crown and Pitcher of the Year honours. He credited his pitching coach for his breakout in 2015.
“My junior year, we got a pitching coach Bobby Applegate that really mentored me and helped me make a couple of mechanical adjustments but it was a lot of mental coaching that helped me get to the next level and turn it on really and get the most out of what I could do on the mound.”
The ace of the Midshipmen followed that up with another strong performance in his senior season when he went 8-2 with a 2.34 ERA.
Midshipmen catcher Andrew Chinnery told the Patriot League Network that catching Gillingham “a dream come true” because of his ability to locate the fastball. Gillingham says they had a special chemistry as batterymates.
“We really had a good relationship, pitcher-catcher-wise. Coach Applegate ended up letting us call our own games my junior and senior years. We worked fast, we worked well together and it was much a joy for me as it was for him I bet.”
Bluefield & Blue-Water Again
Bluefield, West Virginia was the first stop of Gillingham’s professional career in 2016. He was only there for four outings but he earned his first professional win with three innings of one-run relief in which he struck out four against Elizabethton July 4.
Even though Gillingham wasn’t around for long, he will never forget one man in particular.
“If anything, I remember our manager Dennis Holmberg in Bluefield. He was a really good first year coach for all the players. He has a way of making everything memorable. He had a game ball for me ready to go after the game. I guess that stands out the most.”
Gillingham left Bluefield as he was on military leave to fulfill his naval commitment. That meant no baseball for the 6-foot-3 lefthander until this year.
“I picked up a baseball after a few years and had to kind of remember how to pitch. I didn’t step on a mound for almost three years. Coming back to spring training and getting right into it with professional hitters is no joke so obviously, I shook off the rust. Had a couple of little injuries that I battled through and I’m looking forward to going from there.
I kind of had to re-teach myself how to throw. We had a couple of live BPs and the adrenaline was definitely spiked. If anything, I had to teach myself how to kind of control the breathing, control the emotions, to get back to pitching like I knew I could.”
Another adjustment for Gillingham is going from the discipline and daily routine of Naval life to baseball.
“I definitely feel like I’m on a little different path compared to everybody else. Honestly, I had to shake it off a little bit being your days are so packed. I’ve had to kind of relax and accept more of a baseball-style personality which has been a little hard for me but I find that I tend to be the first person on the field, at the meeting, just having that ingrained in you for so many years. It’s tough to shake.
The discipline and obviously like you’re able to get into a routine. I’ve kind of tried to take that routine base style of living and apply that towards baseball.”
On the mound, Gillingham says he has three pitches in his arsenal with plans for a fourth.
“I throw a four-seam (fastball), changeup and a curveball. A little bit during extended spring training, I experimented with a two-seam fastball but that’s still in the developmental stage. Eventually I’d like to add something like a cutter-slider mix. As of now, I’m sticking to my strong pitches – the fastball, changeup, curveball.”
Keeping hitters off-balance is the key for Gillingham.
“One thing I can do well is mix three pitches well. Obviously I don’t throw very hard but I can locate any of those three pitches wherever I want which is kind of tougher now in the new baseball age but I’m working through it, working on getting the velo up there but if anything it’s the ability to change speeds and locate well.”
When asked who he thinks which pitcher in the majors he could emulate, he chose a current Atlanta hurler.
“I was a huge San Diego Padres fan but if I had to compare myself right now, I’d go like a Dallas Keuchel probably style of approach. I never really lined up with anybody on the Padres but I was a huge Trevor Hoffman fan.”
The 25 year-old Gillingham was put to the test early in his first two appearances with the Canadians.
He entered a bases-loaded situation in Vancouver’s second game of the season June 15 at Nat Bailey Stadium. Gillingham got an inning-ending groundout to strand the bases loaded for Grant Townsend and then struck out the side in the fourth in an eventual victory over the Indians. He talked about his mindset entering that game.
“For me, the biggest thing is having confidence in my own stuff and just getting ahead. I needed to throw strikes. I was able to get up 0-2 which was huge so if I can locate a fastball and get ahead. You’ve seen the numbers on how at-bats work with the first pitch whatever happens so I knew coming in, I wanted strike one. That’s the best pitch in baseball and I was fortunately able to get it and from there, the at-bat kind of was in my favour so I ended up getting a swinging bunt and out of the inning for Grant.”
Gillingham collected his first professional save two days later in a win over Eugene. The game ended when Fernando Kelli was thrown out by Brett Wright trying to steal third.
“I can’t say I’ve ever closed a game like that but growing up, I was a huge Trevor Hoffman fan with the Padres. The ninth inning, ‘Hells Bells’ playing. I’d thought maybe I’d change the walkup song to that but the adrenaline was going, I was feeling good. And who knows, maybe closer is in the future but I’ll just throw where they need me.”
Also boosting the adrenaline was pitching in front of over 6,000 fans at the Nat.
“It’s probably the most fans I’ve ever thrown in front of. I threw at the NC State Regional in 2016 but this is something else. It’s a great, great atmosphere here whether it’s the stuff they do in between innings or the golf cart coming out of the bullpen. The fans are definitely behind the team, the whole city is behind the team and it’s really something you don’t see that much in minor league baseball so I’m feeling very fortunate enough to be able to play here.”
Thanks a million to Luke Gillingham for this edition of C’s Chat and to C’s Media Relations Assistant Jordy Cunningham for arranging the interview.