Lubbock Christian University baseball coach Nathan Blackwood didn’t forget about Ricky Contreras when the hometown prospect went off to Howard College.
So when Contreras got hurt and came home from Howard after one semester, Blackwood picked up the phone.
“Coach Blackwood called me up and asked if I wanted to try again before I hung up the cleats,” Contreras said.
Neither side might have predicted how smoothly Contreras would come back from a fracture in his lower back. The righthanded pitcher from Lubbock Christian High was Heartland Conference freshman of the year and NCAA all-South Central Region last season. He’s kept pitching at a high level this season.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound sophomore is pitching at the top of the Chaparrals’ rotation, going 7-0 with a 2.43 earned-run average. He’ll start at 3 p.m. Friday when LCU (29-10, 12-3) hosts Newman (18-21, 5-10) in the opener of a doubleheader and three-game Heartland Conference series.
“He’s been outstanding,” Blackwood said. “He came on late last year once he got in better shape, and he was one of our main guys halfway through the season. He’s just really built on that this year. He’s learning more about how to pitch and really using his cut fastball effectively, and it’s a really good out pitch.”
Contreras debuted in 2016, going 7-2 with a 2.11 ERA. In 22 appearances, 15 out of the bullpen, his line included 81 innings, 65 hits, 20 walks and 76 strikeouts. Working exclusively as a starter this year, Contreras is at 70 1/3 innings with 65 hits, 17 walks and 58 strikeouts.
He threw a five-hit shutout last week, beating Oklahoma Panhandle State 1-0.
The big difference from his freshman season, though Contreras says it doesn’t affect him, is he’s the guy the Chaps trot out as the tone-setter to start each series.
“Going against everyone else’s number ones, that’s a big challenge,” Blackwood said. “For a sophomore, sometimes you’re a little concerned about him having the right mindset, but he’s done an outstanding job. He’s a competitor.”
And to think, a little more than two years ago, Contreras came to a career crossroads when doctors diagnosed a transverse process fracture of his L-4 vertebra. Shortly afterward, Contreras decided to withdraw from Howard after the first semester and come back to Lubbock.
Contreras said his back bothered him during the fall 2014 semester at Howard, but he didn’t know the severity.
“I think it was just the workouts I was doing there, I wasn’t used to,” he said. “It was a bunch of back workouts, a bunch of twisting, rotating. We were doing them every day. They were good workouts. I guess my body wasn’t used to it.”
Once Contreras returned home, LCU made sense for both parties.
“He came to our camps when he was 10 years old,” Blackwood said, “and we’ve been watching him ever since.”
Upon joining the Chaps, Contreras worked through what he called a “hard fall semester” to get back into shape, but that set the stage for a strong debut season.
He ranked top 20 in the nation in ERA in NCAA Division II last season and is continuing to develop his cut fastball. Former Major League pitcher and Lubbock Christian High coach Steve Watkins taught Contreras the pitch his senior year in high school.
“And I just kept working, working, working with it,” Contreras said. “I needed a pitch that was kind of different off my fastball and my curveball to mix it up a little bit, and it’s been really helpful.”