April 11, 2014
By Austin Miller, OleMissSports.com
OXFORD, Miss. -- In the second game of last Saturday's doubleheader, Auburn loaded the bases with nobody out in the eighth inning. Ole Miss, clinging to a 5-1 lead and in search of the weekend sweep, turned to hard-throwing right-hander Josh Laxer.
Accompanied by Eminem's "Square Dance," on his way out of the bullpen, the starter-turned-closer proceeded to strike out the next three batters in order and worked a perfect ninth to close out the 5-1 win and earn his fourth save of the season.
"Going in after three walks, coach basically told me to pound the strike zone and that their hitters were taking, which they were, which I'm happy they did," Laxer said. "They sat up there and took fast balls. I threw it to them, and I'm glad I got outs for my team."
"I'm proud of him," head coach Mike Bianco said. "You can see the competitor but you can also see the confidence. He's had some adversity, but he's battled through it."
Laxer, a 20th-round selection of the Washington Nationals in the 2011 MLB Draft, spent his first two seasons as a midweek starter and middle reliever. This past summer, he played summer ball with the Bourne Braves of the Cape Cod Baseball League where he posted a 2.88 ERA through 25.0 innings of relief.
He moved to the bullpen toward the end of the fall and stepped into the closer role after the South Carolina series, where he earned his first career save in a 6-4 win in game one. Game two wasn't as successful though, as Laxer allowed three runs -- two of them earned -- on four hits in a 5-4 loss.
"Coach Bianco talked to me after my second outing there, which was kind of rough," Laxer said. "He sat me down and told me if I wanted to be the guy that comes in there at the end that I'm going to have to have a short memory and can't let things drag on to the next game. That's when I realized he wanted me to be the closer this year, and I'm trying to embrace it the best I can."
The Madison, Miss., native has gone on to save three more games, including two SEC games against Missouri and most recently Auburn, which pitching coach Carl Lafferty said speaks to his maturity as a junior in his third year in the program.
"Since he's been here, he's always had quality stuff," Lafferty said. "For guys, it clicks for them at different times in their career, whether it's confidence, experience or maturity. Josh has come into his own this year, and he's been terrific."
Coming out of the bullpen that late, Laxer said, his key is to pound the strike zone and dominate with his best two pitches, his fastball and slider, which Lafferty said has made strides and become a quality pitch.
"There was a lot of adrenaline when I went out there," said Laxer about his first save opportunity against South Carolina. "I have learned how to use that adrenaline. I try to fill up the strike zone when I'm out there, and I have had success while doing that. As long as I'm filling up the strike zone, things usually look good."
"It's a great fastball," Lafferty said. "You're talking a fastball that can get up to 95-96 mph. When you're talking about that kind of velocity and commanding it in the bottom part of the strike zone on both halves on the plate, it makes for elite closer stuff."
Laxer has commanded his best two pitches to the tune of a 27-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio, to go along with a 1.77 ERA and .216 opponents' batting average through 20.1 innings this season. As he continues to grow into the closer role, his approach will remain the same.
"Keep pounding the strike zone," Laxer said. "Confidence is key out there toward the end of games. As long as you believe in yourself, you can really just get outs. Put the ball where you want to."
Austin Miller is a writer and blogger for OleMissSports.com. He joined the staff in June 2013 after serving as sports editor of the Daily Mississippian. Follow him on Twitter @austinkmiller