As a 21-year-old pitcher in the Alaska Baseball League, Paul Lujan is statistically having a career year. The 5-foot-11 right-hander is averaging a 0.84 ERA this summer with 12 strikeouts, and has cleaned up for the Peninsula Oilers with five saves to his name, second-most in the ABL.
And yet, Lujan cringes when he looks at his stats.
“I’m not happy with those numbers,” Lujan said while sitting in the hot aluminum bleachers on a recent sunny day at Coral Seymour Memorial ballpark.
“That’s one earned run under my belt,” he continued. “It says I failed one time, and that’s unacceptable because if I have my teammates working for me for eight or nine innings, and I come in and blow the game, I’d be insulted as a player.”
Of course, it’s easy to understand Lujan would be upset with anything less than perfection when he’s playing for his baseball career.
Sean Michel, 24, a teammate of Lujan’s this summer with the Oilers and during the school year at West Texas A&M, is also facing a crossroads in his playing career.
As the second-oldest player on the roster, Michel is well aware that the time to shine is now or never.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” Michel said while sitting in the Oilers clubhouse. “I love playing baseball, so the thought of it ending is terrifying.
“I have to push myself even harder to show that they can’t score off me.”
Heading into Saturday action, Michel sported a 2.70 ERA with nine strikeouts and a single save on his record this summer with the Oilers, although he’s also given up four runs on 12 hits in 13 1-3 innings.
When asked if he feels he is pitching well enough to be seen by scouts, Michel’s answer came swiftly.
“No,” he said. “I’ve had two innings that were bad.”
To be seen, you must be perfect.
Lujan of Thornton, Colorado, and Michel of Yorba Linda, California, are looking for a team — any team — to pick them up when the summer is over. Neither were picked up in the Major League amateur draft this summer, meaning a shot in an independent league or something similar may be the best option.
Both just wrapped up degrees at West Texas A&M, and as teammates, both enjoyed a successful two years that was capped with the Buffs finishing 36-20 in 2015 and qualifying for the school’s second-ever NCAA South Central regional tournament.
On an individual level, Lujan broke the West Texas A&M school record with 11 saves in a single season, as well as the career record with 20 saves over two seasons.
“My job is to close games,” Lujan said. “Failure’s gonna happen, it’s a part of the game.
“But when I leave my teammates down, that’s what kills me. I feel like I lose the ability to perceive myself as the greatest.”
For Lujan, the ability to close out a game started young, learning from his older brother Christian. Parents Stephanie Trujillo and Paul A. Lujan put young Paul in Perl Mack Little League, and his playing days extended into high school at Northglenn. Competing on the junior varsity squad his first year, Paul looked forward to his sophomore year when he would join Christian on varsity.
Unfortunately, the two brothers never got the opportunity to play together, as a fall from a rope in the school wrestling room landed Paul with a broken back, keeping him out for the year.
But he returned stronger, leading Northglenn in nearly every statistical category by his senior year, when he capped off the season with league MVP honors.
In the regional tournament against Pomona High, Lujan impressed scouts by striking out all six batters he faced in a cleanup role, including Dustin Conley, who was being recruited by Otero Junior College coaches. When Otero’s head coach Chris Carrillo saw Lujan strike out the kid he was hoping to recruit, he offered him a full-ride scholarship.
Lujan’s path to West Texas A&M was made possible through his good friend, Dylan James, who put in a good word for Lujan at A&M. Apparently his play spoke for itself, as Lujan was soon offered a position with the Buffs from coach Matt Vanderburgh.
“I did my best not to make him a liar,” Lujan said.
Now competing in one of the premier Texan college conferences, the Lone Star Conference, Lujan thrived. He also managed to put behind him all he injury issues that had plagued him throughout his high school days.
“The last two years at A&M were the best two years I’ve had,” he said. “The friends I’ve made, on-field success we’ve had, the off field success, the connections I’ve made have all been great.”
Currently living with host parent Sandra Berzanske of Kasilof, Lujan said he will likely be returning to A&M to pursue a teacher’s certification degree. Unless he finds his way onto a pro team.
“I’ve had a couple opportunities to play foreign ball, places like Australia, the Netherlands, Canada,” Lujan said. “I had a friend call me earlier this year, telling me to play independent ball in Missouri.”
Standing at 5-foot-8, Michel’s size hasn’t held him back through his career.
Living with host parent Randi Hall of Soldotna, Michel also began playing at an early age, and like Lujan, learned from older brother Chris, a standout at Mater Dei High.
“We’ve given up family vacations to play ball,” Michel said.
Parents John and Ann Michel were more than supportive, Michel said, and growing up in the year-round mild climate typical of California, Michel flourished.
After accepting a scholarship to Fullerton junior college in California, Michel took charge over two years, earning second-team All-Conference in 2013. Michel shut down the opposition at Palomar in 2013 in the regional championships, a win that advanced them to the CCCAA State Finals. Michel threw 3 1-3 innings with no earned runs on one hit.
It was that sort of fight that impressed Vanderburgh — the coach at A&M — who called him with only about a month before school started.
“It was amazing, because I went through the whole thing of, ‘OK, I’m done with baseball, I’ve accepted it,’” Michel recalled. “Now someone told me, they want me to keep playing.
“I was at a loss for words.”
Now, Michel finds himself in a similar situation with the Oilers, hoping for that last-minute call from a pro team looking for a utility player. Michel said his backup plan after baseball is law school at Western Cal State, near Fullerton.
“I’m gonna leave everything on this field, and if they like it, great,” Michel said. “If not, oh well.”
Oilers coach Kevin Griffin added that he’s seen nothing to suggest that either Lujan or Michel can’t cut it with the big boys.
“Those two are two of the most reliable guys in the bullpen,” Griffin said. “They come out here every day, get their work in, and they have something to prove.
“I believe both of them can pitch as the next level, they just need someone to give them a shot.”
Both pitchers say that they would rather give up a hit than walk a batter, citing that at least they are on target and not giving a batter a free base.
It is the reason why both Lujan and Michel vividly remember each and every run they’ve given up this summer. For Lujan, it was June 14 against the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks, a 2-1 loss in which he gave up three hits and a run in the top of the 10th inning.
For Michel, it was June 18 against the Mat-Su Miners, when he gave up the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.
Of course, with a memory like that, there have been other moments which have given both Lujan and Michel enough merit for one more chance, and coach Griffin believes they deserve it.
“They’ve got a little chip on their shoulder because their college careers are done,” Griffin said. “If they want to continue to wear the uniform, it’s going to be at the pro level.
“They’re not scared to mess up. They play fearless, and they’re out there to do one thing. Get outs.”