Kent State fastballer Eric Lauer draws a crowd, but be careful crowding him at the plate

The other day, Eric Lauer was pitching in a road game against Charlotte, playing in a place he doesn’t typically play in front of — a new crowd. That meant that every time Lauer heaved his left arm back to throw toward home plate, a bevy of radar guns raised to track the speed of the ball.A fresh crew of scouts — nine this time — was on hand to watch Lauer lead his Kent State Golden Flashes to a 4-3 victory over the 49ers. It’s standard practice whenever the junior left-hander pitches: the attention from scouts all vying to have a chance to select him in the 2016 Major League Baseball Draft.“It’s just very crowded behind home plate,” Kent State pitching coach Mike Birkbeck said. “You’ve got to get your tickets early if you’re going to sit behind home plate when Eric Lauer pitches.”

It happens all the time this season, as the calendar ticks toward the draft, when Lauer is expected to be a top pick. Before the season, he was projected to be among the top 25 prospects, and his 2-1 record and 1.82 ERA for the 10-4 Golden Flashes this season has helped solidify his case.

So, too, has the growth he’s shown in three years at Kent State, as his fastball has remained strong and he’s developed a slider so good it has become his out pitch.

“It’s been really neat to watch him develop from a thrower in high school to now have the ability to pitch,” Birkbeck said.

Lauer joined the Golden Flashes in 2013 despite being a 17th-round pick by the Toronto Blue Jays, and having enticing offers to go pro. He wanted to earn a degree in business management, which he will do in May. But he also wanted the chance to pursue his dream of playing baseball.

“It was a unique time,” Lauer said. “The decision was a lot tougher than I thought it would be because they made it pretty hard on me.”

Lauer likes to tell a funny story of how he made his decision to attend college rather than play professional baseball: He left it all up to a video game. Specifically, a game of MLB 2K against an unknown opponent where Lauer decided fate would tell him whether to go to college depending on the outcome of the game.

He was up 7-1 in the eighth inning of the game when his opponent simply quit.

“Just some random person in the world had no idea what the implications of that game were, and they just quit,” Lauer said, laughing.

The 6-3 pitcher took that as a sign that he should go to Kent State — the decision he had been leaning toward, anyway — and turned down the pro contract offer.

The Golden Flashes, of course, are thankful for it. Lauer has been the Friday night starter — that is, the No. 1 pitcher — for Kent State the last two seasons. He performed well enough in the Cape Cod League over the summer — going 4-1 with a 2.04 ERA — that he further bolstered his stock for this year’s draft.

“I don’t even think he’s scratched the surface of what he can be,” Kent State coach Jeff Duncan said. “I’ve been around a lot of players who have maybe not even as much potential as he has, who have had good careers in the Big Leagues. I think (he’s) a John Lester-type, I think he can be a 1 or a 2 in the big leagues. He really can. He’s got the potential of it, he’s just got to continue to grow as a pitcher.”

Lauer came in with a strong fastball — ever since he was a kid, he’s thrown hard — that still hovers around 90-93 mph most days. But he’s sharpened his curve and changeup, and added a slider that he said became one of his best pitches.

“But I’ll be honest with you, his best pitch is his fastball,” Duncan said. “His fastball is tremendous. It’s very easy, so to speak. He makes things look really easy. It may look like it’s 84, 86 from the side, but when you get in the box, it’s 90-93. And guys have a tough time getting a barrel behind his fastball. He can work it in and out, and when he’s definitely throwing his fastball, it makes him really, really special.”

That ease in his delivery makes Lauer’s Kent State coaches believe he could have a long professional career.

“It’s just a really easy, effortless delivery, which again, should allow him to have a very long career because there’s not a lot of stress and strain,” Birkbeck said. “He’s just very gifted in the way he’s been able to throw a baseball.

“I can’t even imagine what that’s going to look like in three or four years,” Birkbeck continued. “Boy, he’s got a really high ceiling from my point of view. Having seen where he came from 2.5 years ago to where he’s gotten to now ... it’s going to be really fun to watch him. I think he’ll be a frontline starter for a lot of years.”

First, though, Lauer has other goals.

“I’d like to see the team as a whole go back to Omaha (for the College World Series),” Lauer said. “I’d love to experience it. I think everybody else on the team would love to experience it.”

So line up the radar guns and gather behind home plate when Lauer is pitching. He’s used to it. He welcomes it. And he expects it.

“He’s got like ice water in his veins,” Birkbeck said. “He’s kind of a low-key young man. If there’s any hype, I don’t think it affects him. If he gets down, he just works harder. I think he’s that type that if something doesn’t go right, he just finds a way to work through it. We’re going to just do whatever we can to allow his dreams to come true.”

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