Finding the answer: Former UB pitcher Blair Lakso went from struggling college arm to sought after MLB prospect
At the beginning of this summer, UB head baseball coach Ron Torgalski knew he was going to have to prepare himself for the loss of one of his top back-of-the-bullpen arms.
Mike Kaelin, a 5-foot-9 power pitcher who dominated in the closer role for most of his time at UB, was expected to be selected in the MLB draft when he became eligible following his junior season. However, what Torgalski, or really anyone for that matter, did not anticipate was that he was going to be losing two power arms from his bullpen to professional organizations this summer.
Rising fifth-year senior Blair Lakso is the second pitcher from Buffalo to sign a pro contract this summer. Lakso struggled so mightily last season that he appeared to be left for dead in Buffalo’s bullpen as he entered his senior season. In 19.1 innings pitched last year, Lakso gave up 27 hits, walked 21 batters and held an ERA of 8.84.
In baseball, a sport so defined in the lower levels by tools and projectability, it seemed near impossible that someone like Lakso could fall completely off the radar.
A six-foot-two righty with a mid-90s fastball and a wipeout slider, Lakso had long flashed big time potential, but never consistency. As a 22-year old going into his graduate year, most people seemed ready to write off Lakso as just another guy with an electric right arm and none of the other attributes it takes to be a great pitcher.
As his career bottomed out, Lakso grew frustrated, but never once deterred, as he searched for what he calls “the answer.”
“I was always a click or two away from putting it all together,” Lakso said. “That’s what all these scouts would tell me, is that I have all the natural ability, but I just didn’t find that answer.”
Lakso, a Hamburg native, began his career at St. Bonaventure University, but left the school after one semester because they didn’t have a pitching coach that was there consistently. He transferred into Erie Community College, where he pitched two seasons before spurning other offers to play at local UB.
“I just thought it would be cool to play for a team in the city I grew up in,” Lakso said.
Since he arrived on campus in 2014, Lakso often showed flashes of putting it together, but he could never sustain his success.
“One day at practice he’d look great, then the next day he’d be all over,” Torgalski said. “Same thing in the spring, he’d come in for an inning and you’d say ‘wow, he showed some flashes there of being a great pitcher,’ and then the next day out he’d be back the same way.”
Lakso struggled to make adjustments as he and his coaches attempted to figure out why any given day he could flirt with either brilliance or disaster. In a stacked Buffalo bullpen, Torgalski was unable to get Lakso consistent innings as his control faltered. His problems ballooned and he didn’t have the reps to work out the kinks.
“I’ve always had confidence, it was just actually finding the answer,” Lakso said. “I knew I could go out if my stuff was on and get anyone out, but it just became frustrating. It wasn’t that I didn’t have confidence, it was all constantly searching for an answer, to figure out why it was inconsistent.”
Things got so bad for Lakso after last year that he nearly lost his invitation to the Northwoods League, the summer collegiate baseball league that saved his career. The Northwoods is one of the most elite college summer baseball leagues in the country, frequently churning out future top draft picks. For many players, performance in a summer league like the Northwoods can be the difference between thousands of dollars in draft signing bonus.
For others, it can be the difference between making it to the next level at all.
“After our season they were looking at his numbers and they were calling us saying ‘jeez, well we’re not sure we want to bring him out here,’” Torgalski said. “Our pitching coach [Steve Ziroli] basically had to talk them into bringing him out there and giving him the opportunity and seeing what he can do.”
At the urging of Torgalski and Ziroli, Lakso was given a 10-day contract by the Wisconsin Rapid Rafters. Presumably, Lakso was to be sent home after being used as nothing more than a depth arm for the Rapid Rafters in the first two weeks of the summer.
“I was on a temporary thing and so I had to prove myself from day one since I got there, to be able to stick around all summer,” Lakso said.
However, once he arrived in Wisconsin, it didn’t take Lakso very long to finally find “the answer.”
His pitching coach for the Rapid Rafters, John Halama, who pitched nine years in the MLB, noticed major flaws in Lakso’s mechanics on only the second pitch of his first workout for the team.
“I saw a kid with a good arm, but I also saw a kid with a lot of things that don’t match up,” Halama said.
Two things Halama noticed right away were problems with Lakso’s arm slot and hand positioning.
“The biggest thing I saw with him was his arm slot, it needed to be a little bit higher,” Halama said. “He was low on the slider, which created some differences with the fastball and slider arm slot. Also, his hand positioning - he had his hand on his back hip, which caused him to be longer at the back end of his arm and never really got him into proper throwing position consistently. I think once he changed his hand slot, it took over and made everything else fall into place.”
Other things Lakso worked on included staying over the rubber longer and getting the ball out of his glove quicker.
The true turning point for Lakso finally came during his first game. He walked the first batter and then gave up a double to the next batter. With runners on second and third and nobody out, Lakso stepped off the rubber and pondered his situation. This was his last chance at making his dream come true and he was at risk of being sent packing at the end of his 10-day contract.
“I remember just stepping off and kind of clearing my head and being like ‘OK, well John Halama gave me those couple of things to think about and I thought about those real quick,” Lakso said. “And I got back on the mound, took a deep breath and struck out the next six in a row. That was kind of the breaking point, like ‘wow I finally made a breakthrough.’”
Lakso finally found the answer he had searched for so long and the Rapid Rafters signed him for the rest of the summer. He dominated, going 6-0 with a 1.40 ERA and a 40:12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 32 innings.
“Two weeks later they’re saying ‘hey, this guy ain’t going anywhere,’” Torgalski said. “They sent someone else home. It just happened to work out for him.”
Scouts had long been intrigued with Lakso’s natural abilities, so when it finally clicked for him on perhaps the biggest stage of his life, MLB organizations were lining up to lure Lakso away from his senior year at Buffalo. Lakso’s first offer was $1,000 from the Los Angeles Angels, an offer he was prepared to turn down in favor of returning to school for his senior year.
Torgalski says 12-15 teams showed interest in signing Lakso, but ultimately he decided on the Minnesota Twins.
“It was a comfort thing, it was how they treated me and how they respected my way of how I went about the process,” Lakso said. “I wanted to hear every team out, I was a man of my word, I wanted to see which team pursued me the most and the Twins got right after me, within two days they had an offer and I took that.”
Lakso signed with the Twins only two days before school started this year. Torgalski said that following his performance over the summer, Lakso would have been in consideration to replace Kaelin in the closer role had he decided to return for his senior season. Junior Logan Harasta will now get the first crack at being the closer for UB.
Four months ago, Lakso thought he was headed back to school this fall for what seemed to be his last hurrah in the game he had dreamed of playing at the professional level since he was four years old. He would have had a lifetime to think about his ability to play at the next level, but his lack of the mental or mechanical polish.
Now, for the first time since he arrived on campus at UB, Lakso has found answers. Only now, at the age of 22, is Lakso truly beginning to get a good feel for pitching.
“It’s just a matter of a feel for the game of baseball and to be honest, I can’t teach them that,” Halama said. “They have to learn that on their own because that’s just that gut feeling you have inside.”
Based on his arsenal, along with the fact that he has dominated against some of the best college baseball players in the country, Torgalski says the ceiling for Lakso is “high as can be.”
“It’s not often you’re gonna find an arm that’s a mid-90s arm with a filthy slider,” Torgalski said.
As for the confidence?
Well, that’s one thing that never went away.
“I’m not satisfied by any means,” Lakso said. “I feel like I’m just scratching the surface.”