MOUNT ZION — Every pitch was followed up by a loud pop of the glove and notes being scribbled on notepads.
That was before the game even started.
Effingham senior Zack Lee threw pitch after pitch in the bullpen, which is directly behind the Mount Zion home dugout, to warm up for Tuesday's Apollo Conference doubleheader against the Braves. Behind Lee were scouts from roughly 15 Major League Baseball teams, each there to get a look at the righty with a fastball that hits 93 miles per hour who is signed to attend the University of Kentucky next season and is ranked as the No. 6 prospect in Illinois according to Prep Baseball Report.
“I could feel their presence behind me," Lee said between games of the doubleheader. "I was like, ‘There are a lot more people here than usual.’"
As the weather starts to turn warmer, more scouts are starting to attend games. Tuesday was the high number point for the season. They each followed Lee away from the bullpen and to the diamond and stationed themselves directly behind home plate, many leaning on the walls of the press box to secure a prime view.
In the top of the first, with the Hearts up to bat, scouts watched the game but chatted among themselves. When Lee was on his way to the mound in the bottom of the first inning, they each grabbed radar guns out of their bags and went to work.
Lee, who stands at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, painted the outside corners with 91 miles-per-hour fastballs and got swinging strikes when the Braves took a hack. He was on and the scouts were scribbling in their notebooks.
"He reminds me exactly of Jake Odorizzi," one American League scout told the Herald & Review, "body-wise and pitching-wise."
Odorizzi was drafted out of Highland — he pitched against Mount Zion in the 2008 Champaign Super-sectional — and has been in the majors since the 2012 season. He now pitches for the Minnesota Twins — his third major league stop.
On Tuesday, Lee struck out nine batters in five innings while allowing two hits in the first game of the doubleheader, an Effingham win to split the doubleheader. He showed a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, change-up, slider and curveball. He wants to be known as more than a flame-throwing pitcher.
“What I’m impressed with is he’s still working," Effingham coach Chris Fleener said. "He’s still trying to find new pitches to throw and new things to do out there on the mound. The bottom line is he came out (Tuesday) and probably threw just as good as he has all year."
He wasn't rattled by the throng of scouts, many of whom he knows because he's seen them before — behind home plate or in the press box watching his every move. Lee got the full experience last August when he pitched in the Area Code Games in California — a who's who of high school baseball players — with 300 or so scouts behind the plate and in the stands watching him work.
That, he said, is when he realized he was actually pretty good at this baseball thing, though he had been committed to college for nearly a year at that point. He speaks with a calm demeanor and pitches with the same attitude.
“It’s really cool," Lee said. "I just kind of block it out because if you get nervous and do bad in front of them it’s like, 'Oh, that shouldn’t affect you.' I’ve just got to block it out and throw my game."
Lee has been playing baseball for as long as he could pick up a ball. Fleener has known about him for some time. As a freshman, Flenner could tell that Lee threw pretty well, but kept him on the freshman team before Lee hit varsity as a sophomore. That was also the year that Lee first pumped his fastball up to 90 miles per hour: A milestone for high school pitchers.
“It was a big accomplishment," Lee said. "I was really surprised when I hit it. I knew I was close to it, but I didn’t think I’d ever get up to it."
As a junior, Lee signed his National Letter of Intent to pitch at the University of Kentucky. It's a perfect fit. He clicked with pitching coach Jim Belanger and Lee's social media pages are filled with posts showcasing his excitement to join the Wildcats.
That doesn't stop the major league scouts from getting a look at him. Lee can still be drafted by a major league team out of high school and elect to go to college, where he would need to play for three years before being drafted again.
Like his decision to go to Kentucky, it would have to be a perfect landing spot for Lee to consider signing with a Major League team.
“It’s just got to be the right fit and what’s best for me, honestly," Lee said. "Whether it’s college or a separate route, whatever works the best for me."