EDITOR’S NOTE: Late Friday afternoon, the Arizona Daily Star reported that Luna and teammate Randy Abshier had been put on interim suspension by UA’s dean of students for this weekend’s series against Ole Miss for an off-campus incident in which they were deemed to have violated the student code of conduct.
If Arizona wins the series against Ole Miss, both players could be reinstated before the College World Series begins June 19.
TUCSON — When Gil Luna started playing varsity baseball as a freshman at Casa Grande Union, he wasn’t sure he belonged. Four years later, he found himself pitching in his first game with the Arizona Wildcats.
Luna — now a relief pitcher in his junior season — and the Wildcats (43-15) are playing in the NCAA Tucson Super Regional against Ole Miss. Heading into Friday’s opening game, Luna sported a 1.69 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings.
As a freshman at CG Union during the 2014 season, he made just three appearances, totaling 6 1/3 innings. He allowed six earned runs (6.63 ERA) with seven strikeouts and nine walks.
As Luna recalled during a recent episode of PinalCentral’s Retro Rewind podcast, he came very close to wearing the uniform of the crosstown Vista Grande Spartans when his high school career began.
“Nobody knows this, but I was enrolled to Vista Grande at first,” he said in the podcast interview that took place last month. “The day before school was going to start, I actually switched over to Union.”
As a part-time varsity player his freshman season, Luna looked up to the starting varsity players on the Cougars. He said CG Union coach John Batina giving him that early time to play with the varsity motivated him to get better.
It was also the moment when Luna fell in love with the sport and knew it’s something he wanted to do moving forward. This epiphany was a long time in the making, as he started playing baseball at 4 years old.
One of the keys to Luna’s continued improvement was playing club baseball. He played for a team based in Tucson called BNL (Baseball’s Next Level).
As a high school sophomore, Luna showed significant improvement. Despite a mediocre 4.78 ERA, the southpaw was difficult to hit. He allowed just 34 hits in 41 innings, and he posted a phenomenal strikeout rate, punching out 70 batters.
But even then, Luna didn’t think he could pitch for a Division I college team. However, he initially committed to UA after his sophomore season. That was largely due to his experience playing with his club team in Tucson, where he had the opportunity to pitch against junior college teams from across the state when he was just 16 years old.
“College was not in mind at all,” he said of his mindset as a sophomore at CG Union. “Especially the University of Arizona was definitely not on my mind. Going into junior year is when I had the breakout year.”
And what a year it was. Luna displayed overpowering stuff, and he racked up otherworldly strikeout numbers. In 64 2/3 innings, he struck out 138 — more than two batters per inning. He went 6-3 with a 1.19 ERA.
“Looking back on it, that season was definitely incredible … I just felt like I was playing a video game,” he said.
At the time, Luna said, he was a three-pitch pitcher — fastball, split-finger and changeup. He has since ditched the splitter and throws a curveball and slider to go along with his fastball and changeup.
In high school, Luna’s fastball sat between 88-90 mph and occasionally hit the low 90s. Now at Arizona, he said his fastball is consistently between 92-94 mph on his good days.
After a senior season in high school where he dealt with a forearm injury that limited his innings, Luna was on to Tucson.
On Feb. 18, 2018, Luna pitched his first game in a Wildcats uniform against Bryant University (Rhode Island). He tossed a scoreless inning with a strikeout. But he had some butterflies in his stomach.
Running out to the mound that day, he said, was “the longest run of my life.”
Three days later, he pitched 1 1/3 innings against Arkansas, allowing no runs and no hits with three strikeouts.
Luna received more playing time than he expected as a freshman, making 23 appearances out of the bullpen and throwing 23 2/3 innings. He had 31 strikeouts but also walked 19.
His sophomore year did not go as planned. He struggled to a 9.16 ERA, mainly due to issues with his command. Luna said he was a bit out of whack mechanically as well.
Things were a little rocky last season as well, but Luna pitched just 9 2/3 innings before the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because of the unique circumstance caused by the pandemic, the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to athletes. So while Luna is a senior academically, he is pitching his junior season and has another year of eligibility remaining.
For now, Luna is back to pitching at a high level. And he is getting an opportunity to play in the postseason.
“I just want to continue on the path that I am right now,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been pitching well. Could I be pitching a bit better? Yeah, but I feel like I just need to continue working.”
As for what happens when the season is over, Luna said his No. 1 choice is professional baseball. He will go that route if given the opportunity.
“But if the opportunity doesn’t show in the picture, then University of Arizona for another year will be in the picture,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is based on an interview with Gil Luna conducted for PinalCentral’s Retro Rewind podcast, which can be heard here: bit.ly/3ghv0Ke or on Apple Podcasts: apple.co/3xlSX97