There was no way Mike Houser was going to have his pitchers throw around Bryce Harper.
This was long before Harper was a six-time MLB All-Star and 2015 National League MVP, but there was already a legend surrounding him as a 13-year-old. This Orlando, Florida, little league tournament had plenty of other talented players with tremendous potential, but none more than Harper. He would be on the cover of Sports Illustrated only three years later, deemed the “LeBron James of baseball.”
But there were also these boys from Oklahoma — all from the Tulsa area. The Oklahoma Lookouts had a pitching staff that had never been outdone before. Had Houser known the staff featured three pitchers who were bound for the majors themselves, he would have been even less intimidated by Harper.
Dylan Bundy was the Lookouts’ ace. He was a kid from Sperry who had it all. Today, Bundy is a starting pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles. Next in the rotation was Archie Bradley. When Houser first heard of Bradley, the little leaguer was the talk of Muskogee because of how hard he could throw. Today, Bradley is the Arizona Diamondbacks’ closer. Last was Houser’s son, Adrian, who had been raised in Locust Grove to live a life that revolved around baseball. Today, Adrian has a spot in the Milwaukee Brewers’ starting rotation.
“I think about all the guys on that team,” Adrian says 13 years later, “and it’s pretty incredible that that group of guys was able to all play baseball together.”
Other coaches cautioned Houser and fellow Lookouts coach Matt Pettus not to pitch to Harper, suggesting they might as well walk him instead of giving up a home run.
Thanks to a bad draw, the Lookouts got grouped in the same pool as the Southern California Red Wings. More bad luck put them up against Harper and the Red Wings in the first game. But because it was ultimately a meaningless game, Houser started a new addition to the team on the mound. He still went after Harper, though, but despite the catcher setting up as far outside as he could, Harper sent the first pitch over the right-field wall.
“That was the only home run he hit off us,” Houser recalls.
Houser sent Bundy to the mound the next game against the Red Wings after tournament play had started. Bundy went head-to-head with Harper, who pitched for the Red Wings. Harper’s team won the game, but, according to Houser, Bundy outpitched Harper that day.
Bundy would get chances to pitch to Harper again, years later in the big leagues. The Orioles drafted Bundy out of Owasso High School with the fourth overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft. Three slots later, the Diamondbacks picked Bradley, fresh off winning a state title at Broken Arrow High School. Houser led Locust Grove High School to a championship, as well, before the Houston Astros drafted him in the second round. He was traded to the Brewers in 2015.
But before the three were Diamondbacks, Brewers and Orioles, they were Lookouts.
“Our Lookout team,” Bradley says, “was definitely more than just your average youth summer ball team.”
The knuckle curve, the merge, the practices
Bradley just kept walking batters. Hitter after hitter trotted to first base as the other baserunners advanced to the next bag. This wasn’t something Bradley was used to. The fact he threw harder than any other 9-year-old in the state usually had opposing hitters whiffing at his pitches.
The opposing coach had Bradley’s number, though. Bradley vividly remembers hearing Houser, then coaching the Locust Grove Pirates, tell his team not to swing the bat. “If you don’t swing, this guy can’t throw strikes, so we’ll win the game,” he told them.
Houser was right. The Pirates got the best of Bradley and won the game.
“That’s when you’re just learning how to pitch,” Bradley says now. “I threw probably as hard as you could for an 8- or 9-year-old at the time, but I literally had no clue where it was going.”
That was Bradley’s last season on the Muskogee Warriors’ roster. The next year, at 10 years old, Bradley joined Adrian on the Locust Grove Pirates.
“He couldn’t throw a strike,” Houser says, “but I knew if somebody worked with him (he’d improve), so we recruited him and taught him to pitch the next year.”
Houser taught Adrian and Bradley the same pitch — a knuckle curveball. The knuckle curve is designed to still have the same 12-6 break as a regular curveball, but without such a strenuous motion on the pitcher’s arm because of the flick from their index finger.
After little league and high school careers, and even progression through the minors, that knuckle curve is still Adrian and Bradley’s go-to pitch as MLB hurlers.
“It’s honestly one of those things where I could say I don’t know where my career would be if I hadn’t been introduced to that pitch,” Bradley said.
With two pitchers throwing harder than anyone else around, plus striking kids out with that knuckle curve, the Pirates were rarely beaten that season. The Lookouts actually seemed to be the only team that could hang with them. The two teams continually met up in the finals of tournaments, exchanging victories. Like Houser, Pettus’ son was also a solid ballplayer, eventually playing at Texas Tech. Pettus also had a great team at the time with a young phenom in Bundy.
“I thought, ‘I’m gonna have to do something different here because we’re just spread too thin,’” Pettus remembers. “There were some good players out there, but we’re all — there’s two here, two there — we’re all on different teams.”
Houser knew a small-town team could get his son only so much experience, so Pettus’ pitch to merge the two teams was appealing. Houser agreed, sending Adrian and Bradley to the Lookouts. Pettus was the head coach, and Houser was the pitching coach.
By this time, Bundy had left the Lookouts for another team. But after he heard about the new-look Lookouts, he was back the next year, when the boys were 12.
“At a real early age, it was like, ‘Man, we have some really, really good players,’ ” Bradley said. “From there, things just started to take off.”
Pettus said the Lookouts rarely lost while playing about 70 games a year. The summer was engulfed by the sport, with two practices and two league games during the week, then a tournament on the weekend.
“We always seemed to make it fun,” Bundy said. “But, yeah, they worked us pretty dang hard. I remember multiple times kids throwing up running around the field because it was so hot. But I think that was part of making us who we are today.”
The triangles were usually the cause of the vomit. Players sprinted from home plate to the right-field foul pole, then across the outfield to the left-field foul pole, and then back to home. The triangles were run until every player on the team notched a specific time. And that was after a full practice that included infield and outfield drills, batting practice, baserunning drills and whatever else Houser and Pettus felt needed to be improved that day.
“We coached them all with the intent that you were gonna play college baseball somewhere,” Pettus said. “And we coached them with the intent that you’re gonna be starting on your high school team by your sophomore year. That’s how we approached everything. We were trying to get them ready for that.”
Things didn’t get any easier during the offseason. Pettus’ oldest sons were playing for Memorial High School, giving Pettus an opportunity to gain access to Memorial’s facilities. The team met twice a week in Memorial’s indoor facility under the football stadium bleachers. Because the building didn’t have a heater, the players bundled up in sweats and hoodies. Adrian claims the facility was the same temperature inside as the frigid January air outside.
“You could see your breath,” Bradley recalls. “It was January at the time, and we were in this high school facility working out, doing fingertip pushups, running foul poles, throwing live (batting practice). I mean, honestly, the way you look at it now — the way a team gets ready for a season — that’s what we were doing at 10, 11, 12 years old.”
But the intense summer schedule and practice routines never dulled the group’s passion for baseball.
“For me,” Bradley says, “just playing the game, I still haven’t got burnt out on it.”
Adrian Houser’s phone buzzes every time Bradley or Bundy step on a mound.
He has notifications set on his phone to alert him when one of his friends pitches. When Houser gets the chance on a flight or after a game, he’ll glance at a stat line or maybe even catch a highlight.
Bradley and Bundy do the same, constantly trying to keep up with their former teammates’ schedules.
Bradley has it the easiest, considering Houser and Bundy have scheduled appearances as starting pitchers. He’s also gotten the opportunity to watch both of them pitch against his team this season.
“I told Adrian and Dylan both that I needed them to go like six innings and get a no-decision, and then we still win the game,” Bradley jokes. “… Not that I didn’t want our guys to win, but it was kind of a cool full-circle moment of getting to play against two kids that I grew up with in a matter of a couple of days.”
Unfortunately for Bradley’s Diamondbacks, both of his friends recorded a win against Arizona this season. Bundy gave up only two runs in six innings in a 7-2 victory July 23.
Bundy wasn’t the only former Lookout who put on a show in the series, though. Bradley struck out the side in an inning of relief the next day.
“You’re not necessarily rooting for him, I guess, since you’re trying to win the game, but I think we were losing the game,” Bundy remembers. “But it was kind of cool to see our guys come in the dugout and tell us what they thought about his pitches. And it was all good.”
Excelling when one of the three is present seems to be a trend. When the Brewers visited Arizona in July, Bradley and Houser notched a win on back-to-back nights. Bradley pitched a scoreless 1 ⅓ innings July 19 in a 10-7 Diamondbacks victory. The next night, with Houser still being used as a reliever, he came out of the bullpen to also toss a blank 1 ⅓ innings in an 8-3 comeback win for the Brewers.
“It’s actually kind of incredible that he got it one night and I got it the next,” Houser said. “It’s pretty crazy and also pretty amazing. It’s definitely something that we’ll remember for a long time.”
When the season ends, maybe a little sooner than they hope, the three will return to Oklahoma, within 10 miles of one another and in the same state their bond began. Bradley recently bought a ranch in Pawnee County. Without knowing, so did Bundy, right next door. So while Bradley is Bundy’s neighbor, so is Houser, as he’s going to live with Bradley most of the offseason. Houser plans to help Bradley with his new business, Crash Landing Outdoors, which provides guided duck hunts and lodging on the land.
This winter will not be the first time Houser has roomed with Bradley. Bradley opened his Arizona home to Houser two years ago while Houser went through rehab after Tommy John surgery. Houser also stays with Bradley during spring training.
“I can’t be more thankful for those guys,” Houser said.
That thankfulness starts between the chalked lines, where the friendships began and still continue.
“Looking back at it now, yeah, we’re here in the big leagues,” Bradley says, “but at the time it was just kids being kids and playing baseball and forming these relationships that ended up being something special.”