Chattanooga: Jukich earning a Reds look
By: David Paschall
Chattanooga Lookouts starting pitcher Ben Jukich could be a big-league injury away from joining the rotation of the Cincinnati Reds.
Not bad for someone drafted just two years ago. Not bad also for someone who flunked out of junior college and pumped gas to pay bills.
“You could ask everybody in our clubhouse about their backgrounds, and you’d probably find a few like that,” Lookouts manager Mike Goff said. “That’s a pretty good one, though.”
Jukich didn’t plan this route as a youth with gargantuan dreams, but his focus and work ethic the past two seasons are paying off. Through 15 starts this year, the 25-year-old lefty is 7-2 with a 2.80 earned run average and has racked up 77 strikeouts.
He leads the Southern League with 96 1/3 innings pitched, and opponents are batting just .235 against him.
“Our motto with him is ‘Any pitch at any time,’” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “He’s not afraid to throw breaking balls behind in the count. He’s not afraid to pitch in. He’s done a really good job of controlling the running game, which is something he’s worked very hard on.
“He’s just continuing to progress and has a genuine passion to win.”
Jukich admits he could have used more passion in 2001 after graduating from Denfield High School in Duluth, Minn. He attended Central Lakes Community College in Brainerd, Minn., but failed out after one semester.
“I drank a little bit too much,” he said. “I didn’t go to class. I tried to play baseball and that was it, and it worked until grades came around.”
With a baseball career on hold or possibly over, Jukich was out of school for two years. He played some during the summers and earned paychecks by working all hours at gas stations and bars.
Jukich enlisted in the Army and was two weeks away from getting shipped to Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., when he received a scholarship offer to McCook (Neb.) Community College.
“It was the best thing to happen to me,” he said. “Looking back on it now, I’m obviously really happy with the decision I made, especially with them going into the war with Iraq. I have more respect for those guys than anybody else, but that’s not for me. That’s for someone else. This is what I was born to do.”
After performing well athletically and academically at McCook, Jukich transferred to Dakota Wesleyan in Mitchell, S.D. In 2006, the 6-foot-5, 205-pounder went 9-5 with a 1.62 ERA and led the NAIA in strikeouts (144) and strikeouts per nine innings (13.7).
Jukich became the first player in school and Great Plains Athletic Conference history to get drafted that same year when the Oakland A’s selected him in the 13th round and signed him for $20,000. He wasn’t with the A’s for long, as Oakland traded him to Cincinnati last summer as part of a deal that sent pitcher Marcus McBeth to the Reds in exchange for former Lookouts outfielder Chris Denorfia.
In 14 starts last season at high Single-A Sarasota, Jukich went 8-2 with a 3.55 ERA.
“To be honest, I expected this out of myself,” he said. “It’s nothing new to me, especially after the end of last season. My whole thing this year was to get off to a good start, and that’s exactly what I’ve done. I’m very pleased.”
Jukich was rated by Baseball America before the 2007 season as the No. 27 prospect in Oakland’s organization. Before this season, he was not ranked among Cincinnati’s top 30 by the same publication.
“That’s another thing that keeps me going,” he said. “I look at Baseball America and I see all their top prospects, and I say, ‘I should be on that list. I should be in the top five.’ It’s more motivation for me to go out there and put up zeros.”
Said Goff: “This kid is so dedicated to what he’s doing. I’ve been in here sometimes at 10 o’clock in the morning and Jukich is sitting on the couch on days he’s pitching. He’s given us consistency. He began this year as the sleeper on our staff, but I don’t think we can hide him anymore.”
Jukich has been Chattanooga’s top pitcher since the May 26 promotion of Daryl Thompson, who worked five scoreless innings last Saturday at Yankee Stadium in his major league debut. Jukich cannot match the velocity or the professional experience of Thompson, who was drafted in 2003, but the thought of beginning the season together in Chattanooga and ending it in Cincinnati is appealing.
Continuing to mix up pitches and change angles on his fastballs and breaking balls could make it happen.
“When I saw Daryl on the mound at Yankee Stadium, it fired me up,” Jukich said. “Right now, I feel like I can pitch at that level. I’m not down-talking the Cincinnati Reds or anything like that, but I’m in a situation right now where I can go out there and make them make a decision to bring me up or move me somewhere where I can get another opportunity.”