By C.J. Pentland
Canadian Baseball Network
Last May, after the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds finished play at the NAIA Super Regional Tournament in Los Angeles, Conor Lillis-White and his teammates attended an Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim game before heading back to Vancouver.
Sitting right behind home plate, he paid witness to Mike Trout hitting a walk-off home run against the Tampa Bay Rays – a surreal experience and one that made the Angels rank a bit higher in his books.
Just over one year later, Lillis-White finds himself a member of that same Angels organization.
Selected in the 32nd round (975th overall) by the Angels in the 2015 draft, the left-handed pitcher from Toronto signed with the club on June 18 and headed down to Arizona to start his pro career. He was called the night before the draft by scout Don Archer and asked if he’d sign for on day three, and after replying with “absolutely,” it became a waiting game to see if and when it for sure would happen.
“I was sitting at home, out in my backyard with the laptop out hearing the names called, and it was a pretty cool feeling,” said Lillis-White from Arizona. “I slammed my laptop shut and said ‘I’m not going to look at that anymore.’
“I expected to go in the late rounds, but you find yourself getting a bit anxious even watching the rounds in which you didn’t expect to go, and every once in awhile you sit back and go ‘hey man, you need to relax.’ I didn’t expect to go in the 14th round anyway, but you watch the 14th round and every time the Angels’ pick comes up and it’s someone different you get a bit more anxiety, but I managed to relax myself a bit … I was glad and relieved that it finally did happen for me.”
The 2014 draft brought about a similar waiting process, but come the conclusion of 40 rounds Lillis-White had yet to hear his name called. He had talked to various teams beforehand, and had put up numbers that rewrote the UBC record books – his 0.46 ERA was the lowest of any T-Bird pitcher in history.
He earned the Bus’ Phillips Memorial Trophy as the school’s co-male athlete of the year with Coleman Allen (swimming), but his status as a junior meant that teams opted to wait until he was a senior to select him. He felt disappointed when he didn’t receive the call, but looking back he considers going back to UBC for his senior year the best thing for his development.
He entered his last season with the ‘Birds with much more expectations on him, as he had a bit more pressure on his shoulders as his team’s ace. Yet he responded to lead a strong T-Birds staff – one that also included Alex Webb, who was selected in the 36th round by the San Diego Padres – battling through some early season struggles to find consistency and give his team a chance to win every time he took the mound.
Lillis-White finished the year with a 9-4 record, 3.27 ERA, and 115 strikeouts in 99 innings pitched – helping the T-Birds reach the NAIA Championship Opening Round in California.
“It was a challenge that I embraced, and I didn’t feel a whole lot of pressure even though there was probably more pressure on me,” said Lillis-White, who entered the year as an NAIA pre-season All-American. “I went out there and didn’t really have result-oriented goals – just more process oriented goals, and wanted to fuel it up and stay ahead in counts and be efficient with pitches. And over the last 2/3 of the season I was able to do that pretty much week in and week out, so I was very happy about that.”
Lillis-White started his baseball journey back at High Park in Toronto, and it was former coach Jim Winnick who first taught him some of the nuances of the game as he made the transition out of Little League and developed as a pitcher. In grade 11 he moved to Etobicoke and pitched for the Etobicoke Rangers under former Red Sox farmhand Denny Berni – a man who coached more of a professional style and held Lillis-White to pretty high standards.
Berni’s expectations of him grew after he signed with UBC, as he once pulled him after a lead-off walk to a lefty in the sixth inning of a game he was throwing quite well in – his reasoning being “you walked a lefty. They’re not going to tolerate that out west, so I’m not going to tolerate that here.”
“That was a learning moment for me,” said Lillis-White. “It wasn’t always easy at the time – there was a lot of days where I’d leave the park pissed off about it – but as soon as I got to UBC I learned that nothing was going to be given to me and anything other that consistent improvement wasn’t going to be good enough from the coaching staff’s point of view.”
At UBC, Lillis-White benefited from a strong pitching legacy formed by head coach Terry McKaig and that has lasted since Jeff Francis donned the blue and gold from 1999 to 2002. Miles Verweel, Danny Britton-Foster, and 2012 Milwaukee Brewers draft pick David Otterman were some of the guys who taught him how to deal with the pressures of pitching, and helped him in his approach on the mound that pushed him to the next level.
His family has also significantly shaped his life, though two of his family members passed away far too soon and before they could see him drafted. His mother, Deborah, died of cancer in August 2013, and on April 8 his brother, Aidan, passed away in a car crash at the age of 25. It was Aidan who first introduced Conor to the game of baseball, and it was his mother who influenced his decision to attend UBC.
“She’s a very loving woman, but she taught me pretty early that if I obtained anything in life it was through work and through effort; she worked very hard in everything she did. That would be her greatest influence – both academic interest and just straight-up hard work.”
With his brother, Lillis-White started playing T-Ball since it was something that Aidan did and he wanted to be like him. Aidan didn’t play beyond high school since the university he attended didn’t sponsor baseball, but his passion for sports and competition never subsided, and it rubbed off on his younger brother.
“Really everything he did for the first 20 years of my life I kind of followed. He was kind of the greatest influence on me in terms of the decisions that he made and the paths that he chose to walk.” The Saturday after hearing that his brother passed away, Lillis-White still chose to make his scheduled start and delivered another strong outing – allowing just three hits and three walks over eight innings, giving up one run and striking out nine to lead UBC to a 2-1 win over the Melo Oaks.
Lillis-White will now start his pro journey in Arizona, joining the Angels’ rookie team in Tempe. Whereas the Thunderbirds played close to 2/3 of their games on the road and embarked on trips that lasted up to 25 hours, his current team’s longest commute will be under and hour – though he’s not dreading the grueling trips he’d have to make at other levels of the farm system.
One of his favorite aspects of UBC was the camaraderie he built with his teammates on their bus trips, and the travel grind more than prepared him for travel at the professional level.
He has handled long road trips, the pressures of being an ace, and the academic demands of UBC. He has also dealt with the loss of loved ones – though his family’s influence will stay with him as he makes his journey into the ranks of professional baseball.
“I talked to the pitching coordinator (Jim Gott) for the Angels [on Thursday] and he said that they work guys in pretty slowly in their first year, and expressed that no one would be throwing more than 30 innings, so I’m not sure where they’ll have me. I imagine that it’ll be in Arizona for awhile, so I’ll settle in from here and hopefully have some success.”
For Lillis-White whether it was in High Park, Etobicoke or UBC, success has been expected from the lefty ... and he has delivered.