Many boys are introduced to baseball via a game of catch with dad in the yard.
Few are so skilled at a young age to bypass T-ball and take their first swings in a competitive atmosphere off a pitching machine. And fewer still grow to 6-4 and throw a 90-mph fastball.
Meet Brett Lilek.
He is the leader of the Marian Catholic baseball team that will take on East Suburban Catholic Conference rival Nazareth Academy at noon Friday in the Class 3A semifinals at Silver Cross Field in Joliet.
He is the exception to almost every rule.
“God gives certain things to certain people,” Marian Catholic coach Phil Wail said. “God gave him a 6-4 frame and the ability to throw a ball 90 miles an hour. Now, it’s up to him to listen to all of his coaches—not just here at Marian Catholic—but his summer coaches and the coaches he’ll work with in college to put it all together.”
Lilek, a left-hander who as signed with Arizona State, was drafted in the 37th round by the Seattle Mariners. He has been putting it all together more and more often in the late stages of a memorable run for the Spartans (23-17). He’s notched victories in his last three starts, including an 11-2 thumping of Lincoln-Way West in the sectional championship game in New Lenox. He struck out 15.
And then he delivered a two-out RBI single in the eighth inning of Marian Catholic’s 1-0 supersectional victory over Simeon. He boasts a .303 batting average with one home run and 21 RBIs. His pitching numbers are somewhat misleading.
Lilek is 6-4 with a 2.43 ERA. He has struck out 78 in 54.2 innings. He missed four starts because of some arm soreness. And he has been the victim of some tough-luck setbacks.
Still, when he takes the mound against Nazareth (30-9), the Spartans will be expecting good things to happen. The two teams split regular season games. Marian Catholic is riding a seven-game win streak into the fray.
The Spartans will be appearing in the IHSA state baseball tournament for the first time after winning their first sectional and supersectional championships. And their 23 victories ranks No. 2 on the school’s single-season win list behind only the record win total of 27.
“I think the No. 1 thing is the kids believe in him,” Wail said. “He has the support of his teammates. When he’s on the mound or up to bat, the kids have a sense that we’re in a good position to win a ballgame. He’s a leader in the that way.
“For me, I think the biggest thing is he’s a charismatic young man, sometimes a little too much. He’s sometimes a little too goofy. But he’s usually having fun with the game.”
Lilek: Vague Memories of a Simpler Time
Lilek started out on his trek when he was 6 years old. Then, he often played catch with his father, Paul, and tried to keep up with his three older brothers, Chris, Blair and Casey.
“We have a big lawn out back, and we’d play catch all the time,” Lilek said. “Do I remember those times? Vaguely. I know that I started out hitting off a pitching machine. My dad let me skip T-ball. I guess my skills were advanced at a pretty young age.”
He has worked over time to develop four pitches. He throws a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, changeup and curveball. When he has run into trouble over the last couple of seasons, he has had difficulty spotting his off-speed pitches.
He has been around the baseball block. He joined the Marian Catholic varsity team late in his freshman year.
“It was an adjustment being a freshman and facing varsity hitters,” he said. “By the time I was a sophomore, I started to feel more comfortable.”
Wail challenged him every step of the way.
“The big thing I told Brett—this was during his sophomore year, his first full year up on the varsity—is you don’t want to be remembered as a kid with awesome ability. You want to be viewed at the end as the kid who got it done. You don’t want to waste your talent or your potential.
“He’s figured that out. He has plenty of maturing still to do—just like any other 17- or 18-year-old. But he’s heard me tell him that it’s what you do when you don’t succeed that defines who you are. Those times when you are hit around or you are walking people, how are you going to respond? And how are you going to get better?”
Lilek will have plenty of time to figure out the answers to those questions in the days, weeks and months ahead. He’ll face the best-of-the-best in the Pac-12. His dream is to play in the major leagues.
He is a Phillies Phanatic.
“My favorite player is Cliff Lee,” Lilek said. “Right when he went to the Phillies, I went with him. I like his approach, the way he goes after the hitters, and I look at his mechanics. He’s one of the best pitchers in the game.
“I’ve compared myself to him. People say I look a little bit like him when I pitch. I just go along with it.”
And it’s been a fun ride.