In the small, talent-packed world that is Lawrence baseball, the Duel of the Century is scheduled to take place at 6 p.m. today at Lawrence High’s new baseball diamond.
The forecast calls for thunderstorms. If it proves inaccurate and the skies don’t light up, the radar guns held in the hands of major-league scouts surely will.
The city’s two top pitching prospects of the 21st century — Lawrence High senior Albert Minnis and Free State junior Cody Kukuk — oppose each other for the first time, weather permitting.
Both young athletes throw left-handed, but neither fits the flaky-lefty stereotype. Both pitchers have been on the mound for 39 innings this season. Minnis (4-3, 1.75 ERA) has walked 15 and struck out 62. Kukuk (7-0, 0.72) has walked 33, struck out 60 and allowed just 19 hits.
“You mean Roy Hobbs?” LHS coach Brad Stoll said of Kukuk, comparing him to the protagonist of “The Natural,” a popular book and film. “It’s just ridiculous how good he is. He’s such a talented kid. It will be fun to watch his draft status next year, just as we’ll watch for Albert this year.”
Long, lean and strong, Kukuk stands 6-foot-4, about five inches taller than Minnis, which gives him a higher ceiling. Minnis has the more polished slider. Kukuk’s fastball might be slightly more difficult for hitters to pick up.
“My wife (Lori) played volleyball at the University of Kansas, so I always say he got his athletic ability from her and his left-handedness from me,” said Cody’s father, Rod, a local contractor who specializes in road construction.
Cody’s baseball swing? That was sent from heaven. It evokes three words: sweet-swinging lefty. Kukuk is batting .441, leads the city with eight home runs, 34 RBIs, a .542 on-base percentage and a 1.034 slugging percentage. Three of his home runs and 10 of his RBIs came in one game.
“He surpassed me in home runs in one game,” said Minnis, a right-handed hitter. “He had as many grand slams (two) in one game as I have home runs all season.”
Kukuk has led the Firebirds to a 14-4 record. Minnis led the Lions to a state title in 2009. Heading into this season, Minnis lost one career game as a pitcher during a high school career that began in Missouri. This year, he started the season 1-3 but has regained his dominant form, winning his last three decisions for the Lions (10-8).
“I certainly think he’s a competitive young man and gifted,” Free State coach Mike Hill said of Minnis. “He adds a great breaking pitch with velocity, and those aren’t two things you see too frequently at the high school level. Not too many kids can run it up there in the upper 80s, low 90s (mph). You hear all the time about this kid and that kid throwing 90, and it’s simply not true. This year is the exception. Albert can bring a slider to the table with that. When those two pitches are working, he’s a handful.”
Kukuk said what impresses him most about Minnis is that he “gets hitters off balance. He does that really well. That’s why he’s a successful pitcher. I’m pretty excited. I was hurt last year, so we didn’t get to have the matchup.”
Minnis signed with Wichita State, but could end up bypassing college to ink a contract with a major-league organization. Kukuk made a verbal commitment to KU and projects as an early-round draft choice a year from now. Does his future lie on the mound or at the plate?
“It’s kind of hard to say,” Minnis said when asked to guess. “He’s left-handed, so a lot of people like him as a pitcher. Then once you see him swing the bat, you like him as a hitter. I think he should stick with both as long as he can, then go with which one gives him the best shot to make it all the way.”
In the event today’s game is rained out, it will be rescheduled for later in the week. The schools already are scheduled to face each other Thursday at Hoglund Ballpark.