After strong offseason, Jaylen Hakes is seeing the work pay off

Jaylen Hakes Photo courtesy of UMD Athletics 

Jaylen Hakes Photo courtesy of UMD Athletics 

The first quarter of the University of Minnesota Duluth baseball season has gotten off to an inconsistent start.

“We started off our first two games against Bemidji State at US Bank Stadium and we really played well,” head coach Bob Rients said. “Every facet of the game we did a really good job, we had good defense, our pitching was really good as far as attacking hitters and not allowing free bases. Our offense was able to get the big hit when we needed it.”

Right after playing Bemidji State, the team went down to Florida for the Russmatt Central Florida Invite. They played six games in five nights and went 2-4 on the trip.

“We let up defensively,” Rients said, “where we had some errors and kinda coincided when we didn't pitch as well as we would have liked to and that put us behind early in the game.”

A bright spot for the Bulldogs has been relief pitcher Jaylen Hakes. The redshirt sophomore has seen his playing time increase after not playing much as a freshman.

“I got lit up at the beginning of the year,” Hakes said. “That led to not getting more appearances later in the year. Which makes sense from a coaching standpoint.”

Hakes was recruited as a two-way player, someone who is a pitcher and a position player. Trying to perfect two different disciplines is very difficult, according to coach Rients. Hakes and Rients thought that it was detrimental to his development.

“I felt as though by having Jaylen be a position player and a pitcher that he had his divided attention at practice, divided effort at practice, and therefore, really wasn’t able to maximize his impact for our team,” Rients said.

After the season, coach Rients sat down with Hakes to discuss his future role with the team.

“He said I’m going to be a pitcher,” Jaylen said. “So last summer, I worked my butt off and got in the weightroom, worked on my mechanics and pitched as much as I could in the summer.”

During the summer, Jaylen played townball for St. Michael. Townball is an amatuer league set up through the state, where a lot of ex-college players and players who may not be good enough for the Northwoods League, go to play in the summer. Along with improving his mechanics, Jaylen also focused on spotting his pitches. He worked on getting command of all three of his pitches: fastball, curveball and changeup. So far, it has worked out.

“ Last year I had zero confidence in my changeup,” Hakes said. “This year I have just as much confidence in that as my curveball and just as much as my fastball.”

Even though he’s only pitched 5.1 innings, Rients feels that because of the trials and tribulations of his first year, he can put Hakes in more high pressure situations.

“He’s a guy that has experience,” coach Rients said. “He can rely upon the ups and downs that he experienced the first two years and he can handle a pressure situation which is key in the role that we have him in right now as far as coming out of the bullpen, to settle things down. It’s exciting to see his development and we anticipate him continuing being a vital part to our pitching staff.”

Hakes’ future goal is to become a starter for the Bulldogs. The Albertville native said he had a chance to be one, but walked too many guys in practice. After being named a reliever, his goal has not hindered.

“I wanted to be a starter, that’s what one of my goals was this year.” Hakes said. “I want to play a big role on this team, I don’t want to be a guy who sits on the bench and watches. You just gotta keep working and hope to get that opportunity one day.”

Coach Rients says they like the role they have Hakes in now, but that does not mean it can’t change.

“We’ve identified right now a situation that I think is a benefit to Jaylen and it’s following up a different type of pitcher once the game has started and that he’s able to provide a different look,” Rients said.

Rients noted that reliever may not be Hakes’ permanent position. For now they’re going to stick with what’s been working. “If that grows, awesome for Jaylen and awesome for us, but for right now we’re going to stay with what’s been working so far.”

Hakes is hoping to carry his success through the rest of the season. He understands that he needs to grab the bull by the horns and take advantage of every opportunity.

“I feel like I have a lot of confidence, I feel like I own the mound,” Hakes said.  “I’ve had quite a bit of success this year already, it’s just a start but it’s something I wanna continue to get better.”

Coach Rients has had a front row seat to Jaylen’s improvement and expects big things from him moving forward.

“As a coach you love to see that development in your guys,” he said. “We anticipate him being a really important part of our pitching staff as we keep navigating through the year.”