Graduating Class of 2020 standout Max Rajcic from Lutheran of Orange has the makings for a special career. It will start soon at UCLA, but here’s one last look his high school years, which was on track for him to be a leading candidate for the highest state and national individual honors. He was pitching (and hitting) better than ever and his team was No. 1 in the state rankings.
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Nationwide, for millions of senior class students, the past couple of months have been full of disappointment and anxiety. In mass, they have been forced to live in virtual isolation from their friends, teachers, administrators, coaches and teammates. Missing from their last semester are the senior prom, picnic and “sneak” day to name a few. Most will never experience the feeling of walking across the stage and receiving their diploma, a culmination of four hard years of dedication and sacrifice. For those who participate in athletics, the longing to step onto the field feels like a nagging itch and leaves a wide void.
In South Orange County, there is a talented young baseball pitcher, Max Rajcic, with a tremendous amount of upside who was quite optimistic about his senior season. He and his teammates assembled one of the most talented teams in California, and the nation, for that matter. The Orange Lutheran Lancers have developed into a solid program the past several seasons under the guidance of head coach Eric Borba.
The Lancers have proven their worth by succeeding against elite competition from around the country. Going into this year’s National High School Invitational (NHSI) in Cary, North Carolina, the Lancers were three-time defending champions, looking for a fourth. Since the 2017 event, OLu had gone a perfect 12-0 versus the rugged field of competition. The core group of young men at Orange Lutheran helped the Lancers to an overall record of 80-22 (.784) in their four years on varsity.
As for Rajcic, he has been described as having plenty of “pitchability” as part of his upside. A four-year varsity player with an 11-1 overall record with three saves — not overused. Rajcic finished his OLu career with a dynamite ERA of 0.67 and 108 strikeouts in 84 innings over the past two seasons. If there is one word that may best describe this young man, it’s “consistent.” Rajcic was so steady and dominant that it was hard for Borba to isolate just one outing as his best performance.
“I don’t know if there was just one that stands out,” Borba said. “They are numerous. But if I had to pick one, it would be the match-up duel versus Jared Jones and La Mirada this season.”
More on that later.
The heads started to turn in 2019 when Rajcic pitched against some of the best batters in the county and in the country. As a junior at Orange Lutheran, Rajcic, a right-hander, faced formidable hitters in the rugged Trinity League, the Boras Classic South tournament, the NHSI and in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs. He prospered. Rajcic finished with an 8-1 record. He gave up only five runs in 63 1/3 innings to compile a 0.55 ERA. Rajcic allowed only 14 walks with 78 strikeouts. For his consistent excellence against excellent competition, Rajcic was selected the Orange County Register’s “Orange County Baseball Pitcher of the Year.” He also was Cal-Hi Sports first team all-state (seniors included).
There were four times in which Max struck out 10 batters against four good opponents: Huntington Beach, Maranatha (Pasadena) in the Boras Classic, South Forsyth (Georgia) in the NHSI which Orange Lutheran won, and CIF Southern Section Division 2 champion Santa Margarita Catholic (Rancho Santa Margarita).
The season did not end as Rajcic and the Lancers had hoped, though. They were eliminated in the CIFSS Division 1 quarterfinals by Harvard-Westlake (Studio City). They had hoped o make up for it in 2020.
The 2019 season did provide Rajcic some good memories.
“Winning the Trinity League,” said Rajcic about the 2019 highlights. “Winning the NHSI for sure. It was a good time with a good group of guys.”
Flash-forward. Scouts and coaches saw an impressive increase in velocity of his fastball, this spring, where he was up to as high as 95 miles-per-hour (averaging 93-95). However, batters were even more miffed. The big news was the development of a changeup — which he paired with a wipeout knuckle-curve — that has made all the difference in his game. Rajcic now is even more potent while facing the opposition.
On Rajcic’s breaking pitches, Borba said, the spin rate is at a Major League Baseball level. Spin rate refers to the number of revolutions a ball makes after release. The higher the spin rate, the more movement action a pitch has thus making it more difficult for the batter to make direct contact.
With one of the best track records in the class, Rajcic is a true pitcher with advanced feel for his stuff. His fastball sits in the 90s and he commands his repertoire very well. His quiet confidence, strike-throwing ability and excellent tempo make him the guy you want on the mound when you need a win. Rajcic used his senior year at Orange Lutheran to work on yet another pitch.
“I was working on a another pitch — a changeup,” said Rajcic, who has relied mostly on the fastball and knuckle-curve. “I threw it this year and found a good grip with it. I feel comfortable.”
Borba sums it all up regarding Rajcic. “Max Rajcic, a fierce competitor on the field that will go down as one of the greatest Lancer ball players of all time. He could put a team on his back and lead them on both sides of the ball,” he said. “His tenacity is off the charts. Off the field, he is a happy-go-lucky young man that is a real prankster.”
Rajcic seen pressure-packed situations for several years because he pitches for Orange Lutheran and because of his summer work and representing Team USA in international competition. Rajcic appeared for the 18U squad in both 2018 and 2019. Two years ago, he made four appearances out of the bullpen for the National Team at the Pan-American championships. Rajcic didn’t allow a single hit in 5 2/3 innings of work during the tournament and recorded eight strikeouts. He struck out five in 2 2/3 innings of work against the Dominican Republic on November 27.
Last year, Rajcic made two starts for the U.S. during the Baseball World Cup. He led Team USA in innings pitched with 13 1/3. He was stellar on the mound, allowing just two runs and one walk during the event. He allowed just one run on four hits while walking one and striking out two in his World Cup debut against Chinese Taipei on September 30.
Prior to the 2020 campaign, Max was selected to play in the Under Armour All-American Game and a member of Baseball America’s Prep Preseason All-America Second-Team.
In the abbreviated 2020 prep campaign, Rajcic was 3-0 with one save in his four appearances. He also had 32 Ks in just 22 2/3 innings with just one walk and a 0.00 ERA.
Rajcic left a couple of memorable performances for fans to cherish just from this past season. The first was a duel with La Mirada’s Jared Jones. The second was the Trinity League opening series versus Mater Dei.
The La Mirada game on February 19 saw Rajcic spin a one-hitter where he allowed only one walk and struck-out seven in the duel. It was a matchup of the No. 1 and No. 2 schools and two of the top prospects. Some 1,500 fans were in attendance. More than two-dozen drooling scouts were in attendance, as well. Jones was the 44th overall pick in the MLB Draft on June 10.
“The atmosphere was electric with lots of red, lots of blue and a good turnout for high school baseball,” Rajcic said.
“He stepped up,” Borba said. “Max was as good as he’s been. He had all of his pitches working.”
In a March 16 appearance, Rajcic pitched a two-hitter in a 2-0 win over Mater Dei in a Trinity League game. Rajcic had 11 strikeouts, zero walks and drove in a run. Just one game prior, in a 6-5 win over the Monarchs, Rajcic hit a home run (his first and only of his career) and had two RBI. These performances raised his batting average to .353 with a team-leading four RBI and a 3-0 record with a 0.00 ERA. With this standout week, Rajcic was named the Orange County Register’s “Player of the Week.”
A UCLA-signee, Rajcic did not have to make the difficult decision about what he wants for his immediate future — deciding between college and professional ranks. He was not selected in the just completed and abbreviated five-round 2020 Major League Baseball Draft. So, it looks like Rajcic is off to college to pitch for the Bruins. Becoming professional will have to wait for a while.
The circumstances were different, but doing the same worked out pretty well for the last high-profile Lancer to pitch at UCLA, Gerrit Cole, who is now getting ready to hopefully pitch later this summer for the New York Yankees after signing one of the biggest free-agent deals in MLB history.
Chuck Nan is a former banking executive and free-lance sportswriter from Northern California now living in Orange County and is providing Orange County information/writeups to Cal-Hi Sports. Chuck is former sports editor of the Martinez News-Gazette and is author of the book “The San Francisco Giants: Fifty Years by the Bay” published in 2006.