People talking to John Sakowski often think he sounds a little bit like a surfer. A strange trait for a big-game, locked in, Big East pitcher, whose home stadium is 1,600 miles away from good surfing.
But there is something about his attitude. Something about the way he talks about himself and his journey and the game of baseball.
There is low key. There is under the radar. Then, there is Sakowski.
He is located somewhere in the subterranean depths of the college baseball hype machine; buried beneath the Ogallala aquifer and a youth science fair project on the layers of the Earth’s crust and a few feet above where your feet hit the magma. That’s where you’ll find the senior middle reliever as he gets ready to enter into his final season with the Bluejays.
He doesn’t mind keeping that low profile, though. That unflappable chill.
The laidback chemistry major who plans to one day become a dentist really only has one use for a spotlight: hitting those back molars with enough illumination to get to work. Now, open wide, please.
It’s not new, either: This relative anonymity, this feeling of letting things come when they’re ready.
Sakowski has never had much use for pomp or circumstance: not from his days playing baseball in a small-time local rec league where he describes himself as “more of a basketball guy,” nor while easing his way up through the ranks at Creighton Prep.
In many ways, his easygoing demeanor, his disdain for self-import, has always seemed a little more apt for a wetsuit and some crunchy waves than a pitching mound in a high-pressure situation.
“He was definitely a calming influence for the team,” said his high school pitching coach, Jerry Wellwood.
Make no mistake, beneath that placid, lake-smooth exterior and the self-deprecating attitude are waves of drive waiting to crash onto shore.
The man who used his decades of knowledge about the game to help mold Sakowski in his latter stages of high school knows about the fire hidden beneath. “The thing about John is that he was so competitive,” said Wellwood. “He hated to walk people. He would get out there and be competing like an animal.”
In spite of that fighting mentality, and the mental pliability that comes with an attitude like his, coming off a successful high school career, Sakowski had all the publicity of a CIA covert operative.
“We didn’t hear from a single school.” He says about his recruiting process, after becoming a late blooming star in high school. “My parents weren’t really big into the sports stuff, so we didn’t reach out to anybody and nobody reached out to me. Halfway through my senior year, I knew I was coming to Creighton already, so my dad told me ‘email the coach and see if you’ve got a shot.’”
The coaches agreed to let him come to a walk-on tryout, where he was awarded a “gray-shirt”: he was on the team, but unable to practice with the squad. From there was more work, more pitching. At each step, Sakowski’s uncut diamond of a pitching game got a little more polished. A little more honed.
Until finally, he was ready.
“When I was walking on, I didn’t know if I was going to be on the team,” Sakowski said. “For my first year and three quarters, I had no idea if I was going to make the team or not. I found out three days before we left for a road trip that I made the team.”
They told him he was on the team. And he needed to be ready, because he was going to pitch.
Since then, it’s been more work, more fun. Never one to close himself off to new ideas, Sakowski changed throwing styles. He changed again, and again.
“In high school I was just a normal stock pitcher,” Sakowski said. “When I came here they moved me to side arm. The summer before my junior year, I started throwing over the top and sidearm and now I have all these different pitches I can throw. It doesn’t have to be as good, because they can’t figure out what’s coming.”
As a junior he had a breakout season. Suddenly Sakowski’s vibe and his pitching matched up. The landlocked surfer saw a massive wave coming and hopped on.
“I finally felt comfortable on the mound, but things weren’t going well at first,” Sakowski said. “But, I told coach, I feel it coming. I don’t know if you can see it, but I am comfortable.”
Comfortable enough that he eventually ended the season with a 7-1 record, 2.83 ERA, and 44 strikeouts in 47.2 innings pitched.
When the stage was the biggest, the unworried right hander delivered some of his best performances against in-state rival Nebraska and against defending national champions Oregon State.
“Some people like to get themselves super hyped up before they come in,” Sakowski said. “I’ve tried that, but that doesn’t work for me. When I’m on the mound, I’m calm and relaxed. Everything’s normal.”
The Jays appear poised for a big season, and Sakowski can’t wait. The Omaha rec leaguer, the walk-on who practices meditation by competition, the guy with multiple deliveries and multiple big wins is not going to be a secret much longer. It’s hard to whisper a pitcher’s name when you’re shouting about a clutch strikeout.
“Winning the Big East. That’s the goal.” Sakowski said.
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This article was printed in the September 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.