It started a few weeks ago for John Valek III, perusing his team’s schedule and calculating the finite number of times he’d wear a college baseball uniform. The end of his career, one he understandably wishes could be infinite, is near.
The soft-throwing southpaw’s 13th start Tuesday against Northwestern State is ostensibly his final regular appearance in Alex Box Stadium, given he fulfills every starters goal of taking his team deep into a game.
This journey, one catalyzed by a re-recruitment and a move of 1,092 miles, began with a July phone call from pitching coach Kyle Smith informing his pupil the Zips had disbanded their program.
It’s beginning to end with familiar company.
Valek flew into Baton Rouge on Sunday with his team. Austin Mooney, Valek’s roommate in his three seasons at Akron, boarded an airplane around the same time, traveling to Baton Rouge, where he’ll watch his friend’s final weekend alongside Valek’s parents, aunt and uncle.
Valek deplaned Sunday, then motored back to the airport to retrieve Mooney, making one stop.
“He couldn’t believe,” Valek said Monday, recalling the tour he gave of Alex Box Stadium late Sunday night. “Walking from our stadium at Akron to walking into this stadium, the Box, he couldn’t believe it.”
He’s far from alone.
Valek’s Monday was a portrait of his new normal; answering questions from more reporters than he’d ever fathomed covering the now-defunct program where he spent his first three seasons.
He handles the requests with ease, a sly grin and stoic demeanor his tools of choice to respond to the repetitive questions. Subjects have shifted. His fall interviews were skeptic sessions, wondering how a Mid-American Conference transplant that tops at 85 mph would fare at a six-time national championship program.
“Here was a guy that in July, his whole world was crashing down,” said LSU pitching coach Alan Dunn. “Without having expectations because you didn’t know where he was going to fit in, but you saw in the fall that he was going to be a guy that he was going to help us in some role. If you look what he’s done, it’s been very good. Very good.”
When he ended non-conference play with a 1.99 ERA and four wins in four starts, queries shifted to Southeastern Conference play and how his atypical style would mesh. For five starts, it was seamless, before consecutive outings of fewer than three innings shifted the weekend rotation.
For a team who facetiously fancied its third starter as a fictional man named “TBA” in its last two seasons, Valek arrived and was LSU’s announced third starter for 11 consecutive weeks, the majority of which were with a sub-four ERA, earning him a spot on the Pitcher of the Year midseason watch list.
“With me looking back on the last two teams before this year, it kind of sucked not having kind of a solid Sunday guy,” said Jake Fraley. “Coming to the ball field always wondering what we were going to do for a Sunday guy. I know that sucks for the coaching staff, too, because obviously in a perfect world you want to have it perfect … It was huge for us to come to the field and have that kind of guy and do as well as he did.”
Fraley and Valek share an apartment along with shortstop Kramer Robertson. The two LSU veterans describe the transfer who, on at least one occasion, spiked a baseball in dismay after allowing a two-out hit, as clean and chill.
A model roommate, they say, who needed only success in intrasquad scrimmages to feel fully immersed in his new program.
“This was obviously a complete 180 from where I was with just about everything,” Valek said. “It was a little bit of a feeling out process in the fall … When I was able to get out there in game mode and throw some successful innings while gaining confidence. I was fine from there.”
Little has changed. After his first few starts, he credited his success only to Mr. Gatti’s pizza, an ode to the pitching staff’s longstanding dinner tradition at the all-you-can-eat buffet. The senior who’s been on campus for 10 months feels at home.
“I don’t know where we’d be without John Valek,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri says.
Added Valek, with a laugh: “If you would have asked me a year ago where I’d be right now, this would probably be one of the last places I’d tell you, It’s been a blast and, for me, it was a blessing.”
Follow Chandler Rome on Twitter @Chandler_Rome