By John Bohnenkamp
It’s been an interesting road in the college career of Burlington Bees reliever C.J. Lewis.
“Well, the journey … it’s not over yet,” Lewis said, smiling.
The right-hander is looking for his fourth college program in four seasons, and the summer is a perfect time to audition.
His numbers with the Bees are making coaches notice.
Lewis is 1-0 with a 2.81 earned run average in nine appearances. He has allowed 16 hits in 25 ⅔ innings, striking out 19.
Lewis is in the NCAA transfer portal after pitching just 3 ⅓ innings in three games at Toledo in the spring. He’s hoping someone will see the summer he’s having.
“After every game, I’m sending stuff out,” Lewis said. “So it’s a really big summer for me, in terms of finding what I need to do to be a good pitcher. But also, doing good so I can get stuff out to get the looks that I need.”
Lewis has been a reliable arm out of the bullpen for the Bees, and that was evident in the 2-1 win over the Cape Catfish on June 25. Lewis pitched six innings in relief of starter Jared Townsend, allowing just three hits and an unearned run. He was the winning pitcher when the Bees struck for two runs in the bottom of the 11th innings.
“It was an extreme confidence booster,” Lewis said. “Just going out there, seeing the hard work pay off, it was awesome. A real confidence booster for me.”
“He’s a competitor,” Bees manager Owen Oreskovich said after the game, “and we’re riding with him.”
Lewis’ success has come with some experimentation with his mechanics. A new arm slot he’s found, he said, has made the difference.
“It was really kind of trial and error — what works best for me, what can I repeat the most,” Lewis said. “Really just playing with some things, trying to find out what works best.”
Lewis said the arm slot he found came while playing catch before the Bees played the Cape Catfish on the road in a June 10 game. That night, Lewis pitched four innings, allowing just one run while striking out four.
“I really found something I liked,” he said. “I felt amazing.”
Oreskovich likes Lewis’ confidence.
“He has a little extra ‘oomph’ to him,” he said. “He’s got that, ‘I’m that dude,’ to him.”
And Lewis appreciates his manager’s confidence, pointing to his six-inning stint against the Catfish.
“It means a lot,” Lewis said. “It means the trust is there. And that’s all you can ask for as a player — that your coach trusts you, and you get an opportunity.”
Lewis, who grew up in the Bloomington/Normal area in central Illinois, wanted to play somewhere close to home. Bees coach Chris Monroe, who has recruited Lewis throughout his career, called him and invited him to Burlington.
“I had seen all of my friends play for the (Normal) CornBelters (in the Prospect League), but I wanted to go somewhere different,” Lewis said. “So I came here.
“I’ve learned there are great baseball players everywhere. I wasn’t sure what to expect coming in. There’s a lot of talent in this league. Everywhere you go, you’re going to find someone good.”
Lewis wouldn’t mind getting a start or two, since the coaches recruiting him have talked to him about being a starter. But he likes his role with the Bees.
“I don’t mind coming out of the bullpen,” he said. “The tough situations, I like.”
Lewis’ college career started at Chicago State in the 2020 season that was shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The program was eliminated that summer, so Lewis pitched for Parkland Community College in 2021 before moving to Toledo this season.
Now he’s seeking a new path.
“It’s been a ride, lots of ups and downs,” Lewis said. “But I wouldn’t change it for the world. Without the journey, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today. And I’m thankful for it.”
Photo: Bees right-hander C.J. Lewis has been one of the team’s top relief pitchers this season. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)