By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
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he news had yet to reach John Valek III, but the more his cell phone buzzed, the more he knew something serious had happened.
The Akron baseball program he’d logged more than 250 innings for over the course of three seasons was no more. Disbanded, effective immediately.
And just like that the All-MAC selection was a college free agent heading into the summer before his senior season. He felt like the last one to know.
“My phone was blowing up, but eventually I got a call from my pitching coach and he told me,” Valek remembers. “To be honest with you, I was initially shocked. I panicked. Obviously I never expected anything like that to happen. It was a stressful few weeks of going through the recruiting process again.”
Calls began coming in from across the nation as news of the Zips shutting down spread through the coaching community. About a week into the process Valek got a call that stood out from the pack.
It came from LSU’s in-house pitching guru, Alan Dunn.
“When I get a call from a school like LSU, that’s obviously going to go toward the top of my list,” Valek says. “So after limiting it down to a few schools, I came here to visit and fell in love with it. I could see myself being here, and here I am.”
The crafty left-hander had been the ace of the Akron staff during his sophomore and junior seasons. But with a fastball that tops out around 85-86 mph, Valek projected as either a situational lefty or a long reliever in a deep, talent-rich LSU staff.
“When I get a call from a school like LSU, that’s obviously going to go toward the top of my list.”
Except all he’s done since arriving in Baton Rouge is get outs.
Valek has pitched like a member of a weekend rotation headlined by Jared Poche’ and Alex Lange, so Paul Mainieri rewarded him with the nod to start Sunday’s opening weekend series finale against Cincinnati.
“If you just simply go by results, John Valek deserves to be in there,” Mainieri hinted a couple days before making the announcement official. “He’s pitched as well as anybody has since he’s been on this campus, honestly. What you have to do is project down the road — can he win in the SEC? He’s got the stuff to beat people. The question is whether or not he can beat the top teams in the SEC.”
It’s impossible to answer at this point. And with hard-throwing JUCO transfer Riley Smith’s sore shoulder on the mend, there’s no telling what the weekend rotation will look like by the time LSU travels to College Station to take on the heavy-hitting Aggies in late March.
Valek isn’t the prototypical weekend starter in the SEC. He’s not going to throw the ball by anybody — “he’s the kind of pitcher you have to play good defense behind,” as Mainieri put it — but as Dunn sees it, his experience cannot be ignored.
“He’s got to have that pitch-ability with his stuff,” Dunn says. “The margin for error is decreased because he’s not 97 or 95 or whatever numbers you want to use. So he’s got to really use his stuff. Change speeds and get ahead (in the count). But obviously, having pitched the innings that he has, he’s had success. I think he knows who he is as a pitcher, and that’s important.”
For what it’s worth, the SEC lineup Valek has pitched against in practice and scrimmages since the fall still hasn’t fully figured him out. His ability to pitch backward in the count with his breaking ball and change speeds has at times baffled a young, inexperienced lineup.
Though he’s yielded increasingly hard-hit balls — as Mainieri said, good glove work is key behind him — Valek’s outings have remained strong.
He carved his way through four innings of one-hit ball earlier this spring. He navigated four clean frames against the A-lineup in his final scrimmage start before ultimately getting tagged by Jake Fraley for a three-run homer in his fifth inning of work.
“He’s a crafty little lefty,” lefty-swinging Greg Deichmann says. “You see 84-to-86 up there and think soft-tossing lefty; just sit on something. Then he’ll sneak one in on you or backdoor you with a breaking ball. He doesn’t get squared up too much.”
Batting from the right side, Bryce Jordan adds: “I can’t even hit him. He’s so effective. He can spot up so well and you have to sit back so long — I guess you’re just not used it. He’s a guy who can start after you’re swinging off of Lange and it’s unreal. People think it’s easy to hit just because it’s slow — they have no idea.”
It’s no accident he’ll follow the All-American in the opening weekend rotation.
As far as actual track record goes, Valek’s only career start against an SEC foe came back during his freshman season at Akron.
He shut down Kentucky for three innings before an A.J. Reed solo shot opened the floodgates to seven runs — five earned — over his final 2.2 innings of work in a 7-0 Wildcat win that dropped the Zips to 0-9 on the season.
“There were a lot of butterflies,” Valek remembers. “It was only my second career start, so there was a lot going through my mind. It was exciting, and obviously, at that point, I had no idea I was going to end up in the SEC playing for a school.”
Three years later he’ll make an opening weekend start for one.