Major league dream: Franklin’s Lakins making waves in Red Sox system

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Life-altering moments are coming at a rapid pace for Travis Lakins.

He got married last November, so he’s still a newlywed. His wife is about to give birth to their daughter, so he’s going to be a father. His job sent him to a new level about two weeks ago, so he’s trying to get settled into an unfamiliar spot.

And he might be a major league pitcher in the not-too-distant future.

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“Being a dad’s definitely going to be harder, but it’s going to be more fun too,” Lakins said. “I’m ready for her to come. I’ve got a lot of great opportunities going on. It’s all good here.”

He’s a 2013 Franklin High School graduate who may have been more well-known for his basketball ability as a Wildcat, but baseball is his livelihood these days as a member of the Boston Red Sox organization.

Lakins has advanced through the Red Sox system after playing two years at Ohio State University and signing with Boston for $320,000 as a sixth-round draft pick in 2015.

Recently promoted to the Triple-A Pawtucket PawSox in the International League, he’s been turning heads since moving to the bullpen in May. Now he’s a phone call away from the show.

“Right now, it’s still a little surreal to me that my dream could come true at any moment,” said Lakins, sitting in the visitors’ dugout at Louisville Slugger Field before Wednesday night’s game against the Louisville Bats. “I try not to get too much into it, try not to let that in my head. But, I mean, you’ve got to a little bit.

“I just keep going out here competing every day, grinding every day. And if my name’s called, then my name’s called and we’re headed there.”

A change for the better

It’s been an outstanding summer for Travis Lakins after a couple disheartening ones. All it took was one little switch.

Well, it wasn’t so little. Lakins has been a starting pitcher for a while, so becoming a reliever at this stage of his career does require a few changes.

The 6-foot-1, 180-pound right-hander wasn’t achieving at a high level as a starter as late May approached. He was playing Double-A ball in Maine with the Portland Sea Dogs, and in 14 starts over two seasons in Portland, Lakins was 0-6 with a 5.70 earned run average.

Not helpful was the fact that his 2016 and 2017 seasons ended in July each year. The reason both times was a stress fracture in his right elbow. Both injuries occurred not while he was delivering a pitch, but while he was throwing to a base.

“Just bad luck, I guess,” Lakins said. “You don’t see that injury a lot in baseball. I felt it go the first time, but I didn’t know what it was. As a pitcher, you’re like, ‘Elbow injury … Tommy John surgery.’ That was the first thing in my head. Luckily, I got good news back that it was only a stress fracture. So when it happened the next year, I knew what it was right away.”

A considerable amount of rehab was needed, thought he didn’t have to undergo surgery either time. He said he’s felt better physically this year than he ever has.

But the starting role wasn’t agreeing with him in Portland, for whatever reason. So the organization made the decision to make Lakins a reliever.

He had been quite successful in that position as a freshman at Ohio State, but moved back to starting as a sophomore and had been there ever since.

Lakins felt a significant part of the switch came from the organization’s desire to keep him healthy over the course of an entire season.

“And I was a little frustrated with myself because I knew I was better than what I’d shown,” he said. “I knew the reliever role was in the cards from the beginning of the year anyway. I didn’t care where I was at. I just stayed true to myself, stayed confident in myself and just kept doing what I was doing.”

Lakins said he was told one day that he was going to the bullpen. He simply replied, “Let’s do it,” and so began the path he’s on today.

He took off as a reliever. Throwing hard has never been a problem for Lakins, who said he has five pitches — a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a curveball, a cutter and a circle changeup.

The cutter has been his No. 1 pitch as a reliever. Kevin Walker, who was the pitching coach in Portland last year and is now in the same position at Pawtucket, described the cutter like this:

“It’s basically a hybrid between a fastball that’s mostly four-seam straight and a slider that probably breaks I would say 8 to 12 inches off the fastball. The cutter is a pitch that’s three or four miles an hour off the fastball and has a late cut/break action of three to four inches. The design of it is to get a hitter to react to a fastball and then at the last second have it miss the barrel of the bat. You get weak contact or a swing and miss.”

Lakins said he experimented with the cutter during his OSU days, but this is the first year he’s really been serious with it.

Pawtucket’s Ty Buttrey, a rising star as a reliever, was traded to the Los Angeles Angels on July 30. Lakins was promoted to the PawSox the next day.

Since arriving in Rhode Island, he hasn’t given up an earned run in three appearances (through Friday). As a reliever, he’s only allowed two earned runs in 25 innings, and opponents are hitting .107 against him during that stretch.

Walker said Lakins’ fastball is sitting at 94-95 miles an hour, with a power cutter in the low 90s and a curve in the low- to mid-80s.

“He’s always been good with the fastball, but actually seeing the cutter and breaking ball come along has been big,” said Walker, a former reliever who pitched for the San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants and Chicago White Sox. “Maybe being in the bullpen is the calling card for Lakins. His stuff definitely ticks up in shorter stints. The biggest thing is to keep him on the field and keep him pitching.

“He likes being a reliever and he’s got that bulldog mentality, so I think it’s a good match. He’s a good kid. I’m excited for him. He went through some tough times with the elbow two years in a row. I’ve had my share of injuries as well, and it’s no fun when you can’t compete.”

As much as Walker likes Lakins’ stuff, he said that call-up from Boston isn’t a given.

“This next month is really going to help me kind of evaluate that,” Walker said. “There’s a lot of nuances with being a reliever that he’s learning on the fly right now. He’s got major league quality stuff, yes, but the test is consistently seeing better hitters and being able to adjust when they adjust to him. That’s kind of the next step for him.”

Lakins said he’s made the transition from thrower to pitcher this year. He believes his fastball command needs to improve.

“You’re never going to perfect it,” Lakins said. “This is a game of failure as a hitter and as a pitcher sometimes. You’ll always be making little tweaks to your game.”

More than just baseball

Travis Lakins’ recent life off the field has been a bit of a whirlwind as well.

He turned 24 in June. He married Alexis Murphy in November after a four-month courtship, and they will soon be the parents of Brezzlynne. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Alexis said she’ll be induced Aug. 20, her husband’s next off day.

“She’s going to be an athlete, so we need a name that sticks out a little bit, right?” Alexis said with a laugh. “Travis wants to have about 10 kids. He wants to field a whole team.”

The name Alexis Murphy is significant in local athletic circles. She graduated from Carlisle in 2012 and is the school’s all-time scoring leader in girls basketball. She went on to play at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

She’s Alexis Lakins now, and she goes where Travis goes. With her pregnancy this far along, he’s able to drive with her on road trips rather than travel with the team.

“I’ve been on every trip with him besides one when I was home for my baby shower,” Alexis said. “I think one of the baseball wives calls it a baseball gypsy. I am indeed a baseball gypsy.”

Their families have been close for years, but Alexis and Travis didn’t truly connect until last year after he showed up one day at her parents’ house in Florida.

Now they’re looking for their own Florida home somewhere between Fort Lauderdale and Jupiter.

“We told each other we loved each other about a month in and knew it was God’s plan,” Alexis said. “Rumor has it that he looked at my grandpa during one of my basketball games in seventh grade and said, ‘I’m going to marry that girl.’ My family always encouraged me to date him. In high school Travis was about 5-8 and 115 pounds, so we were about the same size. That wasn’t really what I was looking for at the time, but he’s grown up a little bit.”

And what about a merger of kids from Carlisle and Franklin, neighboring communities with a natural rivalry?

“We’re all the same people,” Alexis said. “We like to pretend not, but we’re really identical. We’re all just a bunch of down-to-earth country people that put family first.”

She said her academic background — a degree in psychology with a business minor — has helped her in dealing with Travis’ career.

“Literally, I’m his financial advisor, his psychologist, his cook, whatever I need to be that day,” Alexis said. “Being a former athlete helps me understand what’s needed. We’re very happy, very grateful, but we’re continuing to evaluate what we can do better as a family and him as an athlete.”

Travis is a laid-back guy by nature. He admitted he’s been a bit hyper at times during the pregnancy, but said he’s made a concerted effort to be the calm one.

He’ll get a 72-hour leave whenever baby time comes. Then it’s back to the mound.

They’re still trying to finalize housing plans in Pawtucket. Adaptability is part of the deal in the minor leagues.

“You have to have Plan A, B, C and D in this position,” Alexis said. “Baseball was probably my least favorite sport ever, but fortunately I’ve opened up a whole new perspective watching him pitch. He’s the most composed person I have ever met. We are very opposite. I’m very high-strung, argumentative. He just goes with the flow.

“I think Brezzy is a huge motivator for a lot of things. He has her name written on the inside of his hat, which is kind of cool. If he does get a little too anxious, he takes a look at that and gets recomposed. I think that’s amazing.”

The professional Wildcats

Franklin, with a population around 12,000, could soon have two athletes playing at the highest levels of professional sports — Travis Lakins with the Boston Red Sox and Luke Kennard with the Detroit Pistons.

Kennard has completed one season in the NBA and is two years younger than Lakins. But they were hardwood teammates at Franklin and are still close friends today.

“I’ve known him my whole life,” Lakins said. “I remember playing third-grade Franklin Heat basketball. He was on my team when he was in the first grade because he was bigger than me. I was a little short kid, and he was Luke. He could play even then.

“I couldn’t be more happy for the dude. I hope he becomes an all-star guy. The kid’s a tremendous player, but a better person off the court.”

Lakins was a 3-point marksman back in the day and had opportunities to play college basketball. His current career path is ironic because when he was 15, Lakins announced to his parents that he was pretty much done with serious baseball. He planned to focus on hoops.

What changed his mind? The Midland baseball organization came calling.

“Going into my sophomore year, I was going to play high school baseball, but I was going to play summer basketball,” Lakins said. “At that time, I was a shortstop, a defensive player, and I hit the ball well. I just didn’t have love for it at that time.

“When Midland came along, I did some research about them. They were one of the top teams in the country, and I was all for it. Being around a group of guys that just loved the game made me realize this is my sport. It got me back into the love of baseball.”

His basketball days at Franklin were special. The Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in the state at one point and played in one sold-out gym after another.

“I had a blast in my four years there,” Lakins said. “It was probably the best four years of my life … until now.”

He grew four inches out of high school and added about 30 pounds of muscle at Ohio State. That’s where his already live fastball took a leap forward in velocity.

Lakins does plan to go back and get his college degree when times allows. A college player usually can’t get drafted until after his junior season, but Lakins met the age requirement as a sophomore (he turned 21 within 45 days of the draft’s completion).

Road to the majors

Travis Lakins has been with Pawtucket for less than two weeks, but it’s a good situation for him. And the Triple-A lifestyle, not surprisingly, is a step up from Double-A.

“The food’s better. The clubbies are better. The hotels are better. The travel’s better. You get sleeper buses. You fly,” Lakins said. “It’s not where I want to be, but I love it.”

One of his teammates is Brandon Phillips, formerly of the Cincinnati Reds.

“Never in my life did I think I was going to get to play with Brandon Phillips,” Lakins said. “Maybe against him, but not with him.”

Amid his success, people keep saying Lakins is on the fast track to Boston, where the Red Sox currently have the best record in the majors. He admitted he doesn’t spend a lot of time focusing on the chatter.

“If you keep finding your name, you might get big-headed with it and mess up what you’re doing with your own spot,” Lakins said. “My wife keeps me updated with it. I just listen.”

He’s been to Boston’s Fenway Park about a half-dozen times. He’s confident that he’ll make it to the next level.

“Someday I will,” Lakins said. “No doubt.”

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