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Getting To Know: Luke Bailey08/08/2012 12:21 AM ET
By Kirsten Karbach
PORT CHARLOTTE -- In 2009, Luke Bailey was ESPNU's No. 7 overall prospect. Regarded by many as the year's top high school catcher, the LaGrange, GA native appeared to be a lock as a first-rounder in the upcoming June Draft. That was before an April elbow injury put his future in doubt. Then a senior, Bailey suffered the injury while pitching for his Troup County High School team. He underwent Tommy John surgery in May of 2009, just one month prior to the MLB Draft. "It was very hard," Bailey said. "From all the scouts coming to the games, all the scouts coming in my house, calling every night. "You have an injury, and it just stops." Scouts were no longer knocking on the door. Suddenly, the young catcher was considered more of a gamble than a first-round prospect. "It went from getting ready to go into pro ball to, 'Alright, I'm about to go to college,'" he said. The Tampa Bay Rays ultimately selected Bailey in the fourth round with the 139th overall pick. After years of built-up anticipation, enhanced by months of uncertainty following his injury, it was a relief for Bailey when he finally learned he had been drafted. "It was just the biggest weight ever lifted off my shoulders," he said. "Everything was done, it was over, and now I could just get back to just focusing on rehabbing, getting my arm better and just playing baseball again." More than a year removed from Tommy John surgery, Bailey made his professional debut in the Gulf Coast League in June of 2010. He hit just .182 in 42 games, but finished strong at the plate, batting .275 in August. Perhaps more importantly, he threw out 31% of attempted base stealers. He was often warned of the potential fall out on his arm that resulted from reconstructive surgery, but Bailey said the most difficult thing post-operation was not throwing - it was hitting. "My arm felt great. Catching, I was fine," he said. "It was just hard to get that comfortable approach back at the plate." He spent 2011 in Bowling Green, where he threw out an impressive 40% of attempted base stealers. Bailey hit .223 in 74 games, but with promising power numbers - 35 of his 55 hits went for extra bases, including seven home runs. The 21-year old progressed to the High-A level in his third year in pro ball, and has served as the Stone Crabs primary catcher this season. Ranked by Baseball America as the Rays No. 15 prospect entering 2012, Bailey has spent the majority of the year striving to regain consistency. He said that during the off season he developed several bad habits in regards to his throwing mechanics, which in turn led to mental errors from not trusting his arm. For a catcher, a fluid throwing motion is imperative. "It's like walking," he said. "If I'm not feeling right throwing, it's like an average person not feeling right walking." As a result, his season got off to a slow start. His progress was delayed even further when he suffered a broken hand in mid-April, and subsequently missed almost two months. Bailey returned to the Stone Crabs lineup on June 6, and has continued to work with Rays catching coordinator Jamie Nelson to regain the solid mechanics that first turned the heads of professional scouts just a few short years ago. While Bailey struggled early on this year, his errors have become less frequent as the season has progressed. He committed 13 errors in his first 19 games behind the plate this year, but only three in his 26 games since. He is also throwing out 27% of would-be base stealers. His bat may be coming around as well. On July 24, Bailey drove an opposite-field double in the bottom of the eleventh to lift the Stone Crabs to a 6-5 victory. Since then, he has nine hits in eight games. Three years ago, uncertainty surrounded where and when his professional career would begin. Yet Bailey never questioned his career path, and cannot picture a life without baseball. "If you want something bad enough, that's all you think about, that's all you do," he said. "And that's all I've ever done. Just practice baseball, think about baseball, dream about it. "You know, that's it."