Long before Gerrit Cole's junior baseball season, UCLA Coach John Savage identified the Orange Lutheran right-hander as having one of the better pitching arms in the Southland. Savage got an early commitment from Cole and started to make plans for when Cole would arrive for the 2009 college season.
Then Cole began throwing 97-mph fastballs last October, enlisted Scott Boras as his draft advisor and received national attention as a possible top choice, leaving Savage to play a nervous waiting game.
"He's jumped off the charts velocity-wise, and now we're going to have to see the consequences," Savage said. "We hope we have enough to offer that he says, 'That's my best route.' "
As the high school baseball season gets underway Friday, one easy prediction is for radar gun-toting scouts to come out en masse whenever Cole is on the mound.
At 6-feet-3 and 205 pounds, Cole throws his fastballs consistently in the mid-90s, with a curveball at 82 mph. Last season, when he was 3-0 in 27 innings, he showed hints of being a dominant pitcher, striking out all nine batters in a three-inning stint against San Juan Capistrano JSerra.
His challenge this season is to go out as a regular starter each week, throw strikes, help his team win and try to ignore all the scouts following his every move.
"It's definitely going to be a different year, but I can't say I'm not used to it," he said. "Through the summer, it's been pretty much the same, I went to Cincinnati -- 200 guns. I went to Area Code -- 300 guns."
As for the sensation of looking up and seeing dozens of radar guns pointed in his direction, Cole said, "You see a lot of white squares and you're like, 'Oh my God.' It's a whole different feeling."
During a tournament game in Jupiter, Fla., in October, Cole said there were some 500 talent evaluators at his game.
"It was pretty crazy," he said.
Last year, there were three Southland high school players selected in the first 12 picks of the June amateur draft. This year's top candidates include catcher Kyle Skipworth from Riverside Patriot, outfielder Aaron Hicks from Long Beach Wilson, outfielder Isaac Galloway from Los Osos, pitcher-outfielder Anthony Gose from Bellflower and shortstop Cutter Dykstra from Westlake Village Westlake.
Cole learned an important lesson over the summer when he put too much pressure on himself and turned in a poor performance during a tournament in North Carolina.
"I was really stressed and did not perform well," he said. "I learned that you can't let that stuff get to your head. You have to have fun, do your thing and don't let anyone dictate how you're going to do, whether by radar guns or talking to you before the game."
Lutheran Coach Mike Grahovac, who has three pitchers who signed with
Division I schools, said of Cole, "As long as I've been around baseball, he's the best talent I've been around."
Cole has a 3.8 grade-point average, enjoys school and was wearing a UCLA baseball shirt around campus last month, indicating he's keeping his options open. And he's in no hurry to choose between college and the pros.
"I just want to put it off as much as possible and enjoy the season," he said.
None of his teammates have asked him to co-sign for a car loan, though they tease him, "Are you going to get a manager like
Savage can tell everyone the No. 1 high school pitching prospect in the nation has signed with UCLA, but he doesn't know if he'll ever get the chance to work with him.
"We still feel good about it, but I don't think anyone knows until draft day what's going to happen," Savage said.
What's certain is Cole will bring lots of heat to Orange County baseball diamonds this spring.