The defining moment for Blair Lakso came in the middle of Wisconsin, of all places, some 750 miles away from home, in June. He walked the first batter he faced, a frustrating start that felt all too familiar. The second batter hit a double, putting runners on second and third with nobody out.
Lakso had been around baseball long enough to know his opportunities were numbered. His debut in the Northwoods League for top college players felt like an extension of his junior season at the University at Buffalo, where he suffered through control problems that threatened to undermine his full potential.
It was maddening.
“It was nothing new to me,” Lakso said.
Lakso wasn’t quite sure Monday why a sense of calm washed over him as he took a trip around the mound in the eighth inning June 2. He was on a 10-day tryout with the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters. Maybe he had nothing to lose. Maybe he stopped putting pressure on himself and did what came natural.
“I remember stepping off the mound and picking up my focal point while looking into the outfield,” Lakso said. “I took a deep breath and said, ‘Let’s go.’”
Lakso gathered his emotions, struck out five of the final seven batters he faced and crossed a critical bridge in his career. Rather than inch toward the end, he discovered a new beginning. Less than three months after he feared he was going home for one final season in college, he’s going to Florida to sign with the Minnesota Twins.
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound right-hander will celebrate his 22nd birthday Tuesday, a day before he travels to Fort Myers for his physical examination. Afterward, he’ll sign with the Twins, forgo his senior year at UB and begin his professional career. He’s projected as a reliever, a role that suits his bulldog mentality on the mound.
“Now the work really begins,” he said. “It’s going to be a job. It’s starting over again. I mean, this is a dream. It didn’t really sink in until I came home and saw my mom and dad. I’m actually doing this. I’m flying out Wednesday morning and starting work.”
You’ve heard about entitled athletes who had everything going for them before their careers quickly fell apart? Lakso’s story is that tale in reverse. He’s an example of how things can snap into place for humble people who keep working, keep searching for answers, keep improving and refuse to surrender.
Lakso’s unbreakable spirit, not to mention his 95 mph fastball and filthy slider, has contributed to him becoming a dangerous pitcher. He’s tougher and hungrier now than any time in his career. The talent was there, somewhere, but his meteoric rise is incredible considering where he stood three months ago.
Nobody, not even him, saw this coming.
“It’s been pretty crazy,” he said. “I was the ‘Crippler’ in high school. All the parents would laugh because I couldn’t find the strike zone, and I’d drill people. Yeah, that’s who I was. Now I’ve developed into where I can dominate. I feel like I have the stuff that, if I go out and I’m on, nobody can touch me.”
Lakso always had a strong arm, but he was a better hitter than pitcher during his youth. In the interest of full disclosure, he grew up in my neighborhood. He was among the fiercely competitive kids who could be found playing some form of baseball in my backyard on any given day.
If his last name sounds familiar, you might remember his father. Bruce Lakso coached football for 20 years at Lackawanna High School. He was a teacher for 24 years before retiring in 2015. He has worked for the Town of Hamburg, maintaining the diamonds at Lake Shore Little League, for the past few summers.
For a while, Bruce appeared the most likely member of his family to make money from baseball. It’s no knock on Blair. You’re not going to find a better, more polite human being than him. But the percentages were working against him before the entire package came together this summer.
“It just clicked,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. It surprised me.”
Lakso had a fastball in the 88 mph range and a good slider at Frontier High, but he wasn’t a can’t-miss prospect. He committed late to St. Bonaventure and returned home after one semester. He played two seasons for Erie Community College and had a few Division I programs interested before he accepted a scholarship to UB.
Nothing came easy, but he never gave up. He stayed up at night scouring YouTube for shreds of information about pitching mechanics. He took notes about his own performances. He read books about pitching. He continued lifting weights. He did everything in his power to give himself a chance.
Flip the calendar to the 2016 season with UB, and there was no telling where his career was going. He was winless in two decisions while coming out of the bullpen. His earned-run average ballooned to 8.84, third-worst on the team. He was mystified while struggling to consistently find the strike zone.
Lakso walked 21 batters and had 18 strikeouts in 19 1/3 innings over 11
appearances as a junior. He gave up 27 hits and 19 earned runs. Batters had a .338 average against him. He threw seven wild pitches and beaned six batters. All signs for him pointed toward the real world, not mowing down professional hitters.
The turning point came during his first day with the Rafters, who saw enough after a few games to keep him for the rest of the season. Pitching coach John Halama, who played for seven teams over nine seasons in the big leagues, watched Lakso throw two pitches in his first workout before finding minor flaws in his mechanics.
A few tweaks changed the trajectory of Lakso’s career and could change his life. One adjustment was getting the ball out of his glove a little sooner during his windup. Another was standing taller for a split-second longer than he was accustomed. A third involved a slight change in his slider grip.
Lakso relaxed and immediately added velocity to his fastball, which improved from 92 mph to 95 mph. He backed up the heater with an 88 mph slider. More important, however, was that he started throwing strikes with regularity. In one 10-game stretch, he struck out 20 batters and walked two.
His confidence soared.
“It was our whole bullpen mentality,” Lakso said. “We were lights out. We didn’t care who it was. If you get to the sixth or seventh inning, the game was over. That was it, plain and simple. I think that helped everyone.”
In no time, his ERA plummeted to a team-best 1.40 among pitchers who made five or more appearances. In 32 innings, he walked only 12, allowed just 15 hits and five earned runs while striking out 40. He finished with a 6-0 record for a team that won the league championship. He came of age.
If players are good enough, teams will find them.
Scouts discovered a potential jewel in Lakso, who had not been drafted, and climbed aboard. Armed with a better fastball-slider combination and more consistency, he was projected to be taken between the fifth and seventh rounds next June. Several teams were in pursuit before he agreed to terms with the Twins.
Minnesota handed him an $85,000 signing bonus to leave UB with one year of eligibility remaining. He’ll have an additional $5,000 waiting for three classes needed to graduate if baseball doesn’t work out. More than anything, the Twins gave him an opportunity that appeared out of reach in May.
Lakso will start out in rookie ball, likely finishing off a short season in Tennessee. He still doesn’t know where his career is going after the summer, but he’s certain it’s going in the right direction. If he can make that much progress in three months, where will he be in three years?
It’s time to find out redefine his future.
“What better time than now to showcase what I have?” Lakso said. “I finally found something that works. I’m clicking. What better time than to show professionals what I’m about to do. I can’t wait to get around people that are as dedicated to baseball as much as I am. I think about it every day.”