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Helena Brewers vs Great Falls Voyagers

Lucas Erceg started his career at NCAA Division I Cal, but academic struggles led him to finish at NAIA Menlo. The 46th overall pick in this year's MLB Draft now begins his pro career in Helena.

Just hours after putting pen to paper on a $1.15 million dollar signing bonus, Lucas Erceg, the 46th overall pick in this month's MLB Draft, was on a plane to Helena, his first assignment in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.

He expected his career to start in the lower rungs of MLB-affiliated baseball. He didn't know what to expect when he got there, though.

Once he landed in Montana's capital city, he got his first glance of Kindrick Legion Field, the rookie league Helena Brewers' old, diminutive facility that seats all of 2,100 spectators and is shared with local legion teams.

Having played his final year collegiately at little Menlo College, however, the stadium was somewhat similar to the ones he frequented in the NAIA's Golden State Athletic Conference.

"Bad fields make you a better player. I really believe that," Erceg said. "When I was playing as a kid, it was every weekend, and they were definitely a lot worse than this."

The 21 year old can make the distinction between high-end and run-of-the-mill ballparks. Two years of starring at the Pac-12's University of California gives him as good a frame of reference as any.

The 6-foot-3, 205-pound third baseman had a sophomore season at Cal that included a .303 average, 11 homers and 42 RBIs. He was an All Pac-12 first-teamer, to boot.

Academia was another story.

Erceg's GPA fell below a 2.0 average and he didn't generate enough credits to be eligible for the 2016 season, his junior year. He made a last-ditch effort shore up his grades in summer school, but fell just short of the requirement.

He'd just signed an apartment lease in Berkeley for the upcoming school year, too.

"It was heartbreaking news. I felt like I let a lot of people down," he said. "Just moving forward, I knew I had to do something that was going to change the way I acted as a student and as an athlete."

He immediately phoned his agent, who began weighing his options. The 2015 MLB Draft was three months before the news his of ineligibility at Cal, and another year of college grooming would do him good, they figured.

Fortunately for Erceg, the NAIA has less stringent eligibility requirements than the NCAA. Five minutes after he made the call, his agent told him he was going to nearby Menlo College, located just 20 minutes from Erceg's hometown of Campbell, California.

Erceg, already a known commodity by dozens of pro scouts, felt fortunate to get another year of college ball, albeit with an obscure, marginally successful program.

Conversely, he felt like he permanently damaged his professional stock, once expected to be high as mid first-round. Erceg would have been a sure-fire Pac-12 MVP candidate had he been eligible in 2016, some analysts say, but was instead relegated to a season of weaker pitching.

"Personally, ever since I had to transfer, I thought I was going to drop into the fifth or sixth round," Erceg said. "I thought it was going to be a way worse situation than what I ended up getting. I could have signed for a Snickers bar and a ticket to get out here."

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He immediately proved there was a chasm between him and other players in the GSAC, setting the Menlo College record in single-season home runs (20) to go with 56 RBIs and a .308 average.

The Brewers had been eyeing the hard-swinging Erceg since his best days at Cal. He was still on their early rounds radar, despite the transfer.

On the first day of this year's draft, Milwaukee used its first pick on electric Louisville outfielder Corey Ray, the draft's fifth overall pick. When the club came to it its second pick at No. 46, it pulled the trigger on Erceg.

So far, he's living up to the lofty expectations. In five games, Erceg is hitting .417 with two doubles, a home run, a triple and six RBIs.

"I'm loving life. I couldn't be happier," Erceg said. "Just the whole experience of coming out here and playing in the Brewers organization. It's something beyond me."

Having some extra coin doesn't hurt, either.

"Very humbling. I still can't believe it right now," Erceg said of signing a seven-figure contract. "But I feel just like another ballplayer. I try not to think about it. It's very easy to get a lot of money and become self-absorbed."

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