CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- During his baseball career at Memorial High School in Manchester, N.H., Chris Lambert pitched a grand total of three innings. Memorial coach Don Menswar knew Lambert had a powerful arm, as well as a strong bat, but thought it was better utilized at shortstop.
That was OK with Lambert; baseball was his second sport anyway. In August of 2001, with a year of junior hockey hockey in the Lowell Junior Lock Monsters program behind him and a year at the Holderness (N.H.) School ahead, he was looking forward to college career as a defenseman at the University of New Hampshire.
No one foresaw that three years later he would be leaving Boston College to begin playing professional baseball — as a pitcher.
Last Saturday — while the organization that drafted him in the first round, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the team with whom he made his major-league debut, the Detroit Tigers, were participating in MLB playoff series — Lambert was back at BC, where he was among eight inductees to the school’s Varsity Club Hall of Fame.
Despite playing only three varsity seasons, Lambert remains the Eagles’ all-time leader in strikeouts, with 272, and in earned run average, with mark of 2.84. He is second in career wins (23), complete games (17) and innings pitched (285.2) — all without having made enough pitching appearances to rank among the school’s top 10 in that category.
How did an aspiring puck chaser become one of the best pitchers in Boston College history? In mid-August of 2001, a friend on Lambert’s Sweeney Post American Legion team persuaded him to attend a Perfect Game USA Showcase in Wareham. Even though Sweeney coach Paul Lemire had used him on the mound, however, Lambert signed up for the scouts’ meat market as a shortstop.
Then, near the end of the showcase, Lambert took the mound.
As his father, Ray Lambert, tells it, Chris blew six straight strikes past the first two batters. By the time the third hitter stepped to the plate, dozens of radar guns were homing in. Three 95-mph heaters later banished the last batter.
Tim Corbin, who was then with Clemson and now coaches at Vanderbilt, said of the younger Lambert, “I’d never seen an unsigned senior who was that good that late in the summer.”
The scholarship offers began cascading in, partially easing the pain of the non-refundable deposit Lambert’s parents had sent to Holderness.
Boston College and coach Pete Hughes won the recruiting competition, but it was so late in the summer, Lambert couldn’t enroll until January. No matter. Hughes had seen enough to know where Lambert’s athletic future lay: on the mound. When Lambert took a few swings during batting practice early in spring training, Hughes told him to enjoy it because it would be the last time he’d hold a bat in his hand as an Eagle.
It proved a sound decision. That season, his first as a full-time pitcher, Lambert went 9-3.
“He won a lot of games for us without a bat in his hand,” said Hughes, now coach of the University of Oklahoma. “Chris was the first marquee prospect in Boston College baseball history. That comes with a lot of responsibility and pressure. He always put his teammates and his university first. It’s an honor to have coached him.”
Lambert describes his young self as the rawest of neophytes.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “I just threw as hard as I could.”
That’s not quite how classmate Marco Albano remembers him. A third baseman who also converted to pitching and ultimately spent six seasons in the minor leagues, Albano said of Lambert, “Once the game started he was very serious, very focused. He had it all. He had speed, his breaking balls were sharp ... But for a kid at the college level to understand pitching and location at that age — you just don’t find it very often. Some guys are more of a thrower, but he was a pitcher right away.”
Lambert refined his delivery and his changeup under Mik Aoki — then BC’s pitching coach, now head coach at Notre Dame — during his sophomore and junior campaigns. He also underwent constant scrutiny by professional scouts. His record tailed off somewhat in senior year, to 6-4, but the losses included one-hitters against Auburn and Bowling Green. His 107 strikeouts during his junior season remain a BC single-season record.
A first-team all-Big East selection in all three of his seasons with the Eagles, Lambert was the 19th player chosen in the June, 2004, MLB entry draft, during a first round that also saw the selections of Justin Verlander and Stephen Drew.
Within a year and a half, Lambert was one level away from the major leagues, but he struggled as a middle reliever with the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate, Memphis. The highlight of his years in the St. Louis system turned out to be his participation in an Olympic qualifying tournament, during which he held Guatemala to one hit over five innings which pitching for Team USA.
Traded to the Tigers in 2007, he had two solid seasons with Triple-A Toledo, earning call-ups to Detroit in 2008 and ’09. After the Tigers placed him on waivers in August of ’09, the Orioles claimed him and pitched him in five games.
At season’s end, with a career major-league record of 1-3 and an ERA of 7.36, he decided to call it a career at age 26.
“Getting drafted high can be both a blessing and a curse,” he said. “You get moved along fairly quickly, but the teams want a fast payoff from their investment. If you start to struggle, they try different roles to see if you can fit in. It’s a business, just like an investment that you discount back four years.”
Lambert returned to Boston College, completed his degree requirements and, in 2011, married the former Laura Geraty of Marblehead. They now live in Boston’s South End.
His pitching days behind him, Lambert puts his finance and accounting degree to use in the investment banking firm of Covington Associates.