HOUSTON -- It seemed every pitch that Brad Lincoln threw to his University of Houston teammates was hit hard.

Lincoln overpowered most people in high school with his fastball. He earned all-county, all-district and all-state accolades for Brazoswood High in Clute, 50 miles south of Houston. But fall ball his freshman year looked like batting practice.

He realized he wasn't in high school anymore.

"My freshman year was a hit in the face," said Lincoln, now a junior and one of the nation's top pitching prospects for the June First-Year Player Draft. "Even in the fall, I was getting hit around. I was leaving stuff over the heart of the plate and not able to throw certain pitches for strikes." Lincoln decided something had to change.

"A power pitcher in high school can get away with throwing the ball right down the middle," said Houston coach Rayner Noble.

It took two years, but Lincoln definitely changed.

He returned from playing in the prestigious Cape Cod League last summer looking like a different pitcher. He went from a 4-7 record and 4.76 ERA as a sophomore to an 11-1 mark with a 1.67 ERA this season.

"It was gradual, building my confidence," Lincoln said of his improvement at the Cape. "I was just going out and having fun."

Lincoln lived with a nice family, went to the beach on his days off and took in several Red Sox games.

Pro scouts watch the league closely. That didn't bother Lincoln a bit.

"I see them as other fans," he said, ignoring the radar guns. "There's some pressure. You expect to be seen. I do better under pressure than most people."

Noble said pitching to the wood bats used in Cape Cod rather than the aluminum ones used in college helped with Lincoln's development.

Lincoln could pitch inside and jam hitters without giving up those bloop singles that aluminum bats produce.

Velocity was never a problem.

He had pitched in Little League, but played shortstop his first two years of high school, a member of the varsity as a sophomore. When he returned for his junior year, Brazoswood coach Bobby Williams suggested Lincoln try pitching.

The very first pitch he threw was clocked at 91 mph.

"You're a pitcher," announced Williams.

"I was kind of iffy at first," Lincoln said.

He played quarterback for two years, but gave up football to concentrate on baseball his junior year. He found he had the attitude to be a pitcher, a natural for the position.

"You start seeing guys walk back to the dugout or get mad," he said. "It kind of pumps you up more."

The Texas Rangers drafted him in the 28th round out of high school in 2003. Lincoln never considered signing. He had already accepted a scholarship to Houston.

He liked the school's tradition. In 2002 and '03, the Cougars lost two games to one in the NCAA Super Regionals to the eventual College World Series champion, Texas and Rice, respectively.

He particularly liked Houston's reputation for producing pro pitchers. Of the five former Cougars in the Majors, four are pitchers: Cincinnati's Ryan Wagner, Minnesota's Jesse Crain, San Diego's Woody Williams and Toronto's Ben Weber. Weber, formerly of the Angels and Reds, recently signed a Minor League contract with the Blue Jays.

Noble, who also pitched for the Cougars, was a fifth-round draft choice of the Astros in 1983 and reached Triple-A.

"You know you're getting a guy who knows what's he talking about in pitching," said Lincoln. "He's helped me a lot."

Noble helped Lincoln develop a third pitch, an effective changeup.

"He's knows at the next level he'll need that pitch," Noble said.

The changeup proved a perfect complement to Lincoln's fastball, which is consistently in the 91-94 mph range, said Noble.

If there was any doubt about the new Lincoln, it was erased March 3, when he took on perennial power Louisiana State in Baton Rouge. The 6-0, 200-pound Lincoln threw eight innings, giving up four hits and two runs in a 5-3 victory.

"It really wasn't a contest," Noble said. "That proved to himself that he had arrived."

He proved it to everyone in the country when he faced Rice, the nation's No. 1 team, on May 12.

Lincoln began thinking about the game two weeks in advance. The Owls had frustrated Houston for several seasons and won four of five meetings the previous year.

This night belonged to the Cougars.

"The first couple of innings, the adrenaline was going," Lincoln said. "To get a couple of runs early was big against a pitcher like [Eddie] Degerman. Every at-bat was a battle."

Lincoln won nearly all the battles -- and he won the game. He pitched a complete-game shutout, giving up five hits, striking out nine and walking two. He threw 135 pitches.

Houston won, 3-0. Degerman lost his first game of the season.

"It was overwhelming," said Lincoln. "I was out there jumping for joy. To get them one game was a big deal, not only for me but the whole team. I don't think anybody got to sleep that night."

Last week, Lincoln was named one of 10 finalists for the Roger Clemens Award, which goes to the nation's top collegiate pitcher. Lincoln admired Clemens even before the Rocket became an Astro.

"He doesn't care who steps in the box, he's going to go after him," Lincoln said. "His work ethic is unreal. It's incredible to watch him work."

Noble envisioned Lincoln as a starter in the pros.

"He's big enough and strong enough, and he can hold his velocity through eight or nine innings," Noble said. "He has very strong legs."

Lincoln knows he will be chosen high in the first round. He tries to defer questions about where he will be picked, as if it will jinx him.

"I don't like to talk about it much," he says. "It's exciting for me, but I'm going to keep it under my belt right now."