The time during each baseball game that should be most leisurely— the half-inning break— is often the most stressful for Jack Labosky.
“Sometimes it’s kind of a mad scramble during the game [when] I’m probably going to pitch,” says Labosky, a third-baseman and rising senior who doubles as Duke’s closer. “I’m coming off the field and Coach points at me and says, ‘Get hot, you’re going in,’ and I have to run to the bullpen.”
In Little League, and even through high school, a team’s best hitter is often a team’s best pitcher. Once in college, though, players find their niches. It’s surprising, then, for a Division I college team’s cleanup hitter to be its go-to relief pitcher also. But that’s what Labosky is for the Blue Devils: In the 2017 regular season, he was second on the team in home runs and runs batted in, and he notched all but two of Duke’s saves.
“It’s hard to expect that one guy is going to have that much of an impact on your program in so many different ways,” says head coach Chris Pollard, who originally recruited Labosky to Duke as a corner infielder.
The middle of three brothers, Labosky grew up playing ball in the heart of Clovis, California. His first experience on the diamond came from hanging out during his older brother’s practice: Once it was apparent the not-quite-five-year-old Labosky didn’t need a tee—he could hit live pitching—he was a hot commodity. Soon, the Labosky boys and father Vince, a national-champion javelin thrower at Kansas, had carved out a Little Leaguesized diamond in the side yard of their two-and-a-half-acre lot.
In high school, his hitting caught the eye of Duke assistant Josh Jordan during a California trip, and the staff got a closer look when Labosky traveled to nearby Cary, North Carolina, for an All-Star tournament in 2013. The appeal of Duke was both familial—his mother, Kim, was a heptathlete for Kansas, and both she and Vince had competed at Wallace Wade Stadium during college—and visionary: Pollard believed that Labosky could be part of a transformative class for Duke baseball. (He was right: Last year’s squad broke Duke’s fifty-five-year NCAA tournament drought, and Labosky was a second-team All-ACC player.)
But Labosky has surpassed expectations. With the development of a nasty changeup—Pollard compares Labosky’s two-pitch repertoire to that of former San Diego Padre closer Trevor Hoffman—he’s now a multidimensional threat. Juggling multiple roles during practice, Labosky occasionally sacrifices fielding to ensure he can have both batting practice and a bullpen session, and he sometimes skips throws to prevent arm soreness.
Honing the two crafts, pitching and hitting, requires different mindsets. Labosky describes pitching as a procession of large, relatively slow muscle movements, allowing it to be meticulously analyzed on film. Hitting is quicker, more reliant on instincts and feel. And while “you’re constantly trying to tweak little things to make yourself better,” he says, the difficulty of hitting requires an acknowledgment it’s not always going to work out. “You’ll kind of figure out that failure is kind of an option,” Labosky says. “Some days [the baseball’s] a beach ball coming to the plate, and some days it’s an aspirin tablet.”
In games, though, Pollard manages a delicate balance to harvest Labosky’s varied skills. NCAA rules allow both a pitcher and a designated hitter to bat, but it’s not always guaranteed. If Labosky started at pitcher and then moved out to the field during the game, Duke would have a few choices: deploy its only other two-way players (junior Ryan Day and first-year Matt Mervis) on the mound to ensure no weak spots in the batting order, or substitute a “one-way” pitcher and either have him bat (uncomfortably) or tap into a deep supply of pinch-hitters, an unsustainable situation. If Labosky were to come in from third base during the middle of the game and then depart, the same problems would arise.
The easiest remedy is for Labosky to be the closer, which leads to no breaks for the ultimate utility player—and an elaborate one-man puppet show for Pollard to orchestrate.
“When we’re in the field, I’m looking at where he’s coming up in the lineup that next inning to see, okay, do we have time to get him loose in the [bullpen]; can he go straight to the pen, or does he have to come over to hit?” says Pollard, who previously did this logistical dance with Kenny Koplove, a shortstop-closer who the Philadelphia Phillies drafted in 2015. “There are times when you’d say, ‘Boy, we’d really want to get him in the game, but he’s playing in the field and then due up [to hit] second in the inning,’ and it’s hard.”
What is Labosky’s preference, then? With the game on the line, would he rather be the hitter or the pitcher? He demurs, refusing to play favorites. “But if it’s a really close game, and your name is called up,” he says, “you’re trying to help your team win, and it’s gonna be fun.”