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After injury, Lucas Giolito hopes his arm is still considered golden

Nearly two dozen baseball scouts line up against a padded chain-link fence, mirrored sunglasses hiding their eyes, as the boy with the golden arm walks past.

They have congregated at an empty diamond in Encino for one reason: to watch Lucas Giolito play catch.

This spring, pitching for his high school team, Giolito unleashed a fastball that lighted up radar guns at 100 mph, the rare feat cementing his place among the top prospects in the United States.

A week later, the 17-year-old Giolito suffered a season-ending elbow injury.

Now, after months of rest and rehabilitation, he is about to participate in the first of several important auditions before Major League Baseball’s draft on Monday. The scouts will take notes and then advise their bosses whether or when to select Giolito. A high pick carries a price tag in the millions.

So the scouts move en masse when Giolito arrives, unfolding his 6-foot-6, 240-pound frame from a white Volkswagen coupe on a warm May afternoon. They tail him from the parking lot to the clubhouse, stationing themselves along the fence as he makes his way toward the immaculately manicured outfield grass.

Giolito, baseball glove in hand, glances over his shoulder.

He feels the scrutiny even as he hooks a band of rubber tubing to the fence and commences stretching his arms, shoulders and back.

“This,” he says to a coach who will supervise his workout, “is kind of weird.”

Major league pitchers routinely throw a baseball upward of 90 mph. Few reach 100.

Giolito, an affable senior at Harvard-Westlake High in Studio City, flashed golden-arm potential from an early age.

His first Halloween costume, at 4 months, was a baseball uniform and he started playing on his first team at the age of 5. He never wavered from the career goal stated for a fifth-grade class project: pro baseball player.

During Little League games near his family’s home in Santa Monica, his mother, actress Lindsay Frost, watched with a mix of pride and fear as her oldest son tried to harness his gift.

“He did throw the ball very hard,” she says, “and it wasn’t always precise.”

His pitches twice broke the thumb of his catcher and struck the bodies of many overmatched batters, sending a few to the hospital.

As he grew older, those pitches were hurled faster and more consistently closer to home plate. After Giolito’s freshman season, scouts clocked his fastball at 91 mph. He turned 15 the next day.

“That was cool,” says Giolito, who enjoys writing and playing the French horn. “But I also thought, ‘I need to start throwing strikes too.’ ”

Toward the end of his sophomore season, it happened.

Giolito had struggled in his previous outing — “a total meltdown,” he says — but as he warmed up for a game against Encino Crespi High, something felt different. Pitches that once evaded the strike zone suddenly lasered to their intended locations.

“That,” he says, snapping his fingers, “was kind of like when things clicked.”

Two years ago, Giolito’s fastball reached 94 mph, then 96. He stayed in that range through his junior season and into last summer, traversing the country to take part in showcase events for high-profile prospects.

By the end of the tour, he had a scholarship commitment from UCLA and analysts tabbed him the best high school pitching prospect in this year’s draft.

“He was a lock to be taken in the first three picks,” says Jim Callis, executive editor of Baseball America magazine.

So few were surprised on Feb. 28 when Giolito’s first pitches against Woodland Hills El Camino Real High registered 98 mph. But then he fired a fastball that became legend.

Scouts behind the backstop looked at the reading on their radar guns and did double takes, a murmur rising.

Did you get that?

A few pitches later, Giolito did it again.

Did you get THAT?

Giolito didn’t notice the fuss. Neither did Harvard-Westlake Coach Matt LaCour, until a scout caught his eye.

“He held up three fingers,” LaCour recalls. “Triple digits.”

Another scout informed the right-hander’s father, social media consultant Rick Giolito, who had only one thought: “Oh … my ... Lord.”

There was no pain, no telltale “pop” indicating a problem. But a week after throwing 100 mph, something was amiss with that valuable right arm.

In a game against Mission Hills Alemany, Giolito clocked 98 mph in the early innings but struggled with control, walking three and hitting three batters.

With one out in the seventh, he delivered what turned out to be his final pitch.

“Ohhhh,” Giolito thought to himself. “That didn’t feel very good.”

He summoned his coaches from the dugout.

“Everybody’s stomach just dropped,” pitching coach Ethan Katz said.

Giolito spent the rest of the game on the bench — “I was more upset that we ended up losing,” he says — and doctors examined him that night. Tests the next day revealed a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, an injury that once spelled doom for pitchers young and old. But no more.

Torn elbow ligaments are now repaired almost routinely with surgery. Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg, a former No. 1 overall draft pick and member of the 100-mph fraternity, recovered from a 2010 elbow procedure, regained his velocity and has enjoyed an All-Star-caliber start this season.

Doctors deemed Giolito’s injury milder — no operation necessary. But they shut him down for the season, handicapping his draft status and his team’s chance of winning a championship. Giolito and senior left-hander Max Fried, also projected as a top-10 draft choice, had formed a marquee one-two pitching punch.

“I was mad,” Giolito says, “because I couldn’t do my part.”

The morning after the injury, Giolito holed up in his room for a few hours, seemingly upset about his misfortune, his mother recalled.

“It’s important that you keep your head up,” she said when he finally emerged to the kitchen. “Stay positive and don’t feel sorry for yourself.”

“Oh, that?” he responded. “I was over that an hour ago.”

His mother knew then he would be OK.

Giolito stayed with his team while rehabilitating his injury, patrolling the dugout during games, encouraging teammates and “charming” their bats with a rubber toy snake named Dante.

He also attacked an aggressive training program. Work with light weights and other equipment three times a week strengthened weaknesses in Giolito’s core, forearms, shoulder and back. Intense lower-body workouts six days a week kept him in shape.

The goal: Prove that he is sound, perhaps even stronger, and worth selecting with a high draft pick.

Back in Encino, with the scouts studying his every move, Giolito plays catch with a teammate in the outfield, moving back every few throws. First to 30 feet, then 40, then 50, until they are about 120 feet apart.

Gradually, he closes the distance again, finishing the half-hour workout by flashing a thumbs-up sign and sharing an embrace.

“It’s hard to tell much just watching him play catch,” one scout says. “We’ll see.”

After the workout Giolito briefly huddles with his father and an agent who is advising the family leading up to the draft.

Later, ice bags wrapped around his right elbow and shoulder, he’s clearly relieved the first marker is behind.

“It feels good,” he says of his arm. “It feels real good.”

Giolito will not pitch from a mound until after the draft, clouding his status as a surefire first-round pick. When he does, he can expect scouts to again be there with their radar guns.

Most likely, the readings will start to climb ... 90 ... 92 … 95 ... ever faster.

Will he ever hit the magical 100 again?

The boy with the golden arm is in no hurry to find out.

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein


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