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Column: Look for these three junior pitchers to be top draft picks next spring

Sherman Oaks Notre Dame’s Lucas Gordon (left), Orange Lutheran’s Max Rajcic (center) and La Mirada’s Jared Jones are among the top junior pitchers in the Southland. (Eric Sondheimer; Kent Nishimura; Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times). LA Times Today ai

Living in Southern California and having covered high school baseball for more than 40 years, I’ve been spoiled by the never-ending talent of pitchers.

Like an artist seeking the perfect environment to create a masterpiece, young pitchers flock here to experience great competition, great coaching and great weather opportunities.

Having seen the likes of Bret Saberhagen (Reseda Cleveland), Jack McDowell (Sherman Oaks Notre Dame), Jeff Suppan (Encino Crespi), Gerrit Cole (Orange Lutheran), Trevor Bauer (Newhall Hart) and Jack Flaherty (Studio City Harvard-Westlake) when they were teenagers, I now have high expectations before proclaiming someone has reached big-time status.

My No. 1 observation in projecting future success for a pitcher doesn’t revolve around velocity or physical size. It’s about throwing strikes. Saberhagen and Suppan were strike machines. Ditto for Flaherty and Bauer. McDowell and Cole threw hard but also had a take-no-prisoner attitude.

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For the next year, fans will have the rare opportunity to monitor the development of three extraordinary junior pitchers who have already separated themselves this season: Jared Jones of La Mirada, Max Rajcic of Orange Lutheran and Lucas Gordon of Notre Dame. They’re committed to USC, UCLA and USC, respectively.

Each throws their fastball in the 90s. But more importantly, each has command of multiple pitches and understands the importance of throwing strikes.

“It’s incredible,” La Mirada coach Jimmy Zurn said. “It’s an elite group of juniors.”

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Said Orange Lutheran coach Eric Borba: “Those three are as good as they get. They have unique mound presence and the ability to compete. They seem to pitch their best in the biggest games.”

Jones is 5-1 with an 0.82 ERA. He has 79 strikeouts in 51 innings. Rajcic is 6-1 with an 0.29 ERA. He has 62 strikeouts in 48 1/3 innings. Gordon is 4-0 with an 0.89 ERA. He has 47 strikeouts and five walks in 31 1/3 innings. And each also is a top hitter and position player when not pitching.

Jones and Rajcic can throw curveballs and sliders that look unhittable at times besides throwing fastballs in the mid-90s. Their changeups are also outstanding. Gordon is the left-hander among the group. He didn’t pitch last season because of an elbow injury that required surgery. His comeback this season has been fabulous. His changeup might be the best of all, and his velocity has continued to rise as the season has progressed.

“It’s all location,” Gordon said. “I’m trying to be more a pitcher than a thrower. It’s throwing strikes, hitting spots, working in and out of the strike zone, trying not to catch barrels.”

Each of their coaches think they have the best pitcher.

Borba on Rajcic: “He’s always been a kid who pitches with a lot of emotion. There’s a difference between showing emotion and passion vs. disrespecting the game. Showing passion and love for competition is definitely acceptable.”

Zurn on Jones: “He commands all his pitches. My No. 1 priority is his future. When you have a kid that is going to be playing baseball for a long time, that’s a priority.”

Tom Dill on Gordon: “He has good stuff and good velocity and good movement and command of his pitches, but better than that, he knows how to pitch. When he’s pitching, he can see weaknesses in hitters. I let him call a lot of his pitches and don’t typically do that, but he has real feel for what’s working for him.”

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The fact all three pitchers will be in the Southern Section Division 1 playoffs in two weeks adds to the intrigue. Gordon gets to show his playoff form on Monday in a Mission League game for first place at home against Studio City Harvard-Westlake.

Gordon agrees that competition brings out the best in pitchers based in Southern California.

“The competition is insane,” he said. “That’s honestly how I’ve probably gotten good.”

All three will be watched closely by professional scouts in preparation for the 2020 draft.

For now, sit back and enjoy the latest in a long line of elite pitching standouts.

Three juniors emerge as elite pitchers

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

Twitter: @latsondheimer

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