The second of John Valek III’s 42 career starts came with trepidation. The lefty, who dips as low as 66 mph with a breaking ball, ventured to Kentucky with a winless Akron team eight games into a 22-game, season-opening road trip that avoided a frigid Ohio winter.
“Man, it was three years ago,” Valek said Wednesday, struggling to recall his line while slumped over the LSU dugout. “There was a lot going through my mind. At that moment, it was cool for me being a freshman from a smaller, mid-major school going to an SEC school and playing. It was exciting.”
“Kind of cool that now, here I am in the SEC three years later.”
He scattered seven hits and five earned runs through 5.2 innings, allowing a home run to future Golden Spikes Award winner AJ Reed in a 7-0 loss. It was the second loss of a career that, through the next three years, vaulted to the top of Akron record books.
He left home for Florida after his junior season — a 6-6 campaign with a 3.25 ERA — nine wins away from becoming the Zips’ all-time winningest pitcher and 21 credit hours away from a diploma. Valek III had a mid-July work out in Jupiter, Florida. At the same time, his father, John Jr., got an email.
His son exited the workout with his phone abuzz, finally answering a call from his pitching coach, Kyle Smith, who told him the university was cutting the baseball program — the only sport dropped as the school enacted a $40 million reduction in expenses.
“It was devastating,” John Jr. said. “You’re basically four weeks away from going back to school, and now you’re not going back to school.”
Alongside Pete Ochinko — former LSU standout Sean Ochinko’s father — John Jr. coached his son through his Little League and travel baseball days. Then both a first baseman and pitcher, Valek III played with Sean’s younger brother, Tyler.
The families became friends, and trips to Alex Box Stadium became frequent during Sean’s career. A trip to Omaha for the 2008 College World Series with the family furthered Valek III’s desire to attend LSU.
“Not too many big-time schools are out recruiting a kid that throws mid-80s,” John Jr. said, adding an anecdote from Valek III’s freshman season at Akron.
“Wow,” the team’s hitting coach said shortly after seeing the freshman throw for the first time. “I can’t believe we recruited this kid.”
More than 70 schools and coaches contacted Valek III in the two weeks following Akron’s decision, leaving the once hardly-recruited high schooler scrambling to make sense of each offer.
Some, like LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn, were patient. Others demanded quick answers from the southpaw who garnered a reputation in the Mid-American Conference as a precise, crafty hurler that needed a good defense behind him, but got quick outs and threw any of his three pitches for strikes regardless of the count.
“When you’re trying to build a pitching staff, you’re trying to get different dudes in different spots that have different looks,” Dunn said. “He’s got to have that pitchability with his stuff but the margin for error is decreased. He’s not 97 or 95, whatever numbers you want to use. He’s got to really change speeds, use his stuff, get ahead.”
Valek III narrowed his choices to Florida Atlantic University, Clemson and LSU, taking visits in that order on a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. He decided on LSU by the weekend.
Now mixed with more conventional SEC arms, Valek III’s repertoire forces the young Tigers lineup to part from its customary approach against their pitching staff.
“You see mid-80s, left-handed and you want to get big, so that’s what people do, and he gets a lot of outs, lot of quick outs,” said Kramer Robertson, Valek III’s roommate. “I know for myself it’s hard to be patient against a guy like that.”
Added Cole Freeman: “He’s about as good as a crafty lefty comes.”
Four innings of one-hit baseball in a fall scrimmage last week was vintage Valek III. His fastball topped out at 85 mph — LSU coach Paul Mainieri says he’s hit 87 — with buried, swing-and-miss breaking balls in the mid-60s. Mainieri says he’s pitched as good, if not better, than any pitcher on campus, working himself into the discussion for the weekend rotation.
Questions still loom, though. Valek III’s arsenal flummoxes mid-majors, but Mainieri wonders if it will be as effective in the SEC. That’s a query time will answer.
“It sometimes feels like I’m throwing 100” Valek III said. “I just have fun going out there and giving my team a chance to win. And as long as I’m doing that, going out there and getting outs, I don’t care if I’m throwing 75 or 105 because I’m going out there and giving my team a chance to win and throwing strikes and getting outs. I’m happy with myself.”