Attack mode transforms Navy’s Luke Gillingham into nation’s strikeout ace

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Warm water along 70 miles of Pacific coastline.

Dining and partying in the Gaslamp Quarter.

Live music next to the picturesque marina on Shelter Island.

San Diego in the summer can be a college student’s ultimate playground.

Luke Gillingham spent 60 days last summer in the city that mixes natural beauty, relaxation and fun as well as any in the country.

If only that was the purpose of Gillingham’s trip.

Instead his first 30 days included rappelling out of a helicopter, firing a rifle in simulated marksmanship training and riding an amphibious assault vehicle.

Through March 29, Luke Gillingham led NCAA Division I with 78 strikeouts. (Naval Academy photos)
Through March 29, Luke Gillingham led NCAA Division I with 78 strikeouts. (Naval Academy Athletics photos)

The next 30 were trips to Coronado High School to lift weights, do some long tossing and work on his mechanics as well as visit his family.

Being a pitcher for Navy’s baseball team doesn’t have some of the perks of a normal college athlete.

But only one college student in the country was named Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week four times this season. Gillingham also is one of 60 players on the watch list for the Gold Spikes Award as the country’s top amateur baseball player and a a semifinalist for the Dick Howser Trophy, awarded to the top player in collegiate baseball

In the Midshipmen’s season-opener Gillingham mowed down the first 12 North Carolina A&T batters he faced. The junior gave up no runs and just one hit in seven innings. He didn’t walk a batter and finished with 16 strikeouts, the most by a Navy pitcher since 1986.

Eight days later, against Maryland Eastern Shore, Gillingham struck out 14 in seven innings, gave up no runs, one hit and walked just one.

In 12 starts and 83 1/3 innings, Gillingham is 8-1 with a 1.19 ERA and 111 strikeouts. This weekend, Navy ousted Lafayette to advance to best of three championship series against Lehigh this weekend. He’s three away from passing Mitch Harris’ 2006 total and nine away from surpassing the current St. Louis Cardinal reliever’s 2007 mark of 119. Chuck Davis is the all-time Mids’ single-season leader (140 strikeouts in 1960).

Last year Gillingham wasn’t nearly as  unhittable. He finished 2-6 with a 3.33 ERA. The biggest difference between last year and this year is his strikeout numbers. Gillingham fanned 59 batters in his 12 appearances.

“The summer work that I put in I think really made a difference,” said Gillingham. “My brothers and I spent a lot of time at Sunset Park (in Coronado) throwing.”

When preseason practice started this season, the coaching staff put a nugget in his ear. That, combined with his summer work, transformed Gillingham into a dominant pitcher.

“I took a mental approach to attacking every batter instead of just trying to make my pitches,” said Gillingham. “My coach is really big about getting ahead of batters. Getting the batters 0-1, 0-2, 1-2 has really been the key.”

But like most members of the military academies, Gillingham has a realistic expectation of what is ahead for him.

“I knew that when I committed to Navy that baseball wasn’t going to be a career for me,” said Gillingham.

Keith Chartrand

Keith Chartrand

Keith Chartrand is a freelance writer based in Ocala, Fla.