Jerry Miller had nothing to lose.
The longtime coach of the Wheaton (Ill.) Legion Post 76 baseball team knew that one of the finest players in the program’s history was back home during the summer of 2014.
But Lake Bachar seemed done with baseball.
Bachar, a two-sport star at Wheaton North High School, considered playing baseball as a freshman at UW-Whitewater after a successful year as kickoff specialist for the powerful Warhawks football program. But then-coach Lance Leipold preferred to have his rising sophomore, who would take on placekicking and punting duties the next season, spend the spring concentrating on football.
Bachar obliged — though he found his way back to the diamond as a freshman in baseball the following spring.
Miller sensed Bachar wasn’t ready to hang up his glove just yet. He had one year of Legion eligibility remaining, and Miller admits his intentions to get Bachar back on the baseball field after his first year at Whitewater were partially selfish.
“I knew if we had him, we would be someone to contend with in Legion ball,” said Miller, whose 2014 team went to the Illinois state tournament with Bachar as the ace.
“And you don’t want to see a kid like that go in one direction and have regrets.”
Miller’s persistence helped put Bachar on a career path that few could have imagined. Bachar, who came to Whitewater to kick a football around, is a likely high draft pick in next month’s Major League Baseball draft.
But first, there’s the little matter of trying to help Whitewater’s baseball team win a third national championship. The Warhawks (34-15) open the NCAA Division III World Series against La Roche of Pennsylvania (41-10) at 7:45 tonight at Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute.
Whenever the Warhawks’ run ends, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound right-handed sophomore will look forward to the draft. He is ranked No. 90 on MLB.com’s list of top draft candidates for the June 9-11 event.
“This whole process has been pretty crazy,” said Bachar, who will celebrate his 21st birthday on June 3. “At one point I never thought I’d play baseball again. And now I’m here, possibly leaving school early to play at a professional level.”
It’s not difficult to see why MLB scouts love Bachar. He can touch 95 on his fastball and throws four pitches well. In addition to his blistering fastball, Bachar also throws a hard slider, changeup and an effective curve.
“At the start of his freshman year, he was a two-pitch guy,” Whitewater coach John Vodenlich said. “By the end of the year, he was a three-pitch guy and had a great summer in the Northwoods League and started to develop a fourth pitch.”
Working the baseball-football double is nothing new at Whitewater, says Vodenlich, who has had more than 20 multi-sport athletes during his 13 seasons at the school. Vodenlich certainly knew about Bachar’s ability, but waited for the athlete to make the first contact.
“We allow the athletes to make up their own mind,” Vodenlich said. “I’ve never recruited an athlete out of another sport. If they don’t want to play and make that choice on their own, they’re not going to get any special coaxing from us.”
As his sophomore season of football was coming to an end with another Division III national championship, Bachar began to re-evaluate his baseball plans. Leipold was leaving Whitewater to take the University at Buffalo job, and when Bachar approached new head coach Kevin Bullis, he offered his support. Bachar continued his football career as a junior, keeping busy as a punter, kickoff specialist and the kicker for longer field goals this past season.
“(Bullis) was all for it, and that made me a lot more comfortable, and that made me a lot more comfortable emailing coach Vodenlich,” Bachar said. “I think it was the week we were going to the Stagg Bowl. I asked him if he knew me, and I said that I was interested in trying out.”
Bachar finished 7-1 with a 2.24 ERA and a 46-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio as a freshman. This season, he joined Curtis Morgan (7-2, 1.82 ERA) atop the Warhawks’ rotation and has an 8-5 record with a 2.66 ERA and 94 strikeouts against 18 walks in 842/3 innings.
Bachar was on the mound for Whitewater’s regional championship-clinching victory Saturday, going the distance and striking out nine in a 5-3 win over Rose-Hulman (Ind.) to complete a two-game sweep (after an earlier loss to Rose-Hulman) that sent Whitewater to its sixth World Series.
“I was on short rest, so my arm wasn’t feeling the best, but I was going out there with the mentality that I want to give our team the best start I can possibly give them,” Bachar said.
“I got to the fifth or sixth inning and I definitely wanted the whole game.”
Bachar’s potential as a high draft pick next month has drawn comparisons to another Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference standout, Jordan Zimmermann from UW-Stevens Point, who was drafted in the second round by the Washington Nationals in 2007 and last offseason signed a $110 million contract with the Detroit Tigers.
Bachar downplays the comparison to Zimmermann, but wouldn’t mind following the Auburndale native’s path to the big leagues.
“I haven’t been drafted yet, so you really can’t compare me to him,” Bachar said. “But I have heard about him, and I look up to those guys who come up through D-III, maybe matured late or thought of playing two sports or something.
“From the bottom, it’s hard to get exposure. His exposure was in the Northwoods, so when you get on that stage, take care of it. I love to hear those stories, and I hope to be one of those stories.”