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Crying is allowed in baseball when your season is canceled, but pandemic presents BYU’s Jarod Lessar with unexpected options

Senior right-hander plans to return to BYU next year after NCAA ruling on spring sports cancellations, but if an MLB team offers him a free-agent deal after June’s draft, he might give professional baseball a try

SHARE Crying is allowed in baseball when your season is canceled, but pandemic presents BYU’s Jarod Lessar with unexpected options
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BYU pitcher Jarod Lessar throws a pitch during the Utah vs. BYU baseball game at Smith’s Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 14, 2019. Lessar, from Price, will return to BYU next fall after the college baseball season was canceled in March due to the coronavirus pandemic — unless he’s offered a free-agent contract after June’s MLB draft.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

PROVO — When the coronavirus pandemic ended BYU’s baseball season after just 16 games, and quite possibly senior Jarod Lessar’s college career, the right-handed pitcher walked to the mound at Miller Park and cried.

Then the former three-sport star at Price’s Carbon High went home, watched film of his five pitching appearances in 2020, and cried some more.

“I would say it was up there with one of the worst days of my life,” Lessar said. “Everything that you loved and worked so hard for and was passionate about was suddenly gone, taken away in a heartbeat, and not because of anything you could control.”

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BYU Cougars starting pitcher Jarod Lessar delivers a pitch during a game against Oregon State Beavers at Surprise Stadium on Monday, February 17, 2020 in Surprise, Arizona.

Zachary Lucy Photography/Courtesy BYU Baseball

But now, in an odd way, the COVID-19 outbreak might be the spark that revives Lessar’s dreams of playing professional baseball. He could be offered a free-agent contract after the shortened Major League Baseball draft, which is only five rounds this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

And if that doesn’t work out, he will be welcomed back this fall for an extra year granted by the NCAA to spring sports seniors, BYU baseball coach Mike Littlewood has assured him, and at the same financial aid level (scholarship) he was receiving before the pandemic hit.

The Cougars, who were 7-9 and about to open WCC play against LMU when the season was canceled on March 12, only had three seniors on their roster: Lessar, catcher Abe Valdez and pitcher Ben Weese. Valdez told the Deseret News in March that he plans to return; Weese is moving on.

“I am thankful to the coaches,” Lessar said. “They didn’t have to give us our scholarships back. They didn’t have to give us seniors our roster spots back. I owe a lot to coach Littlewood and those guys for allowing me to come back.”

“I would say it was up there with one of the worst days of my life. Everything that you loved and worked so hard for and was passionate about was suddenly gone, taken away in a heartbeat, and not because of anything you could control.” — BYU pitcher Jarod Lessar

But first things first.

The first round of the draft is June 10 at 5 p.m. MDT and will include 37 picks. Rounds 2-5 are June 11. When the fifth round ends, teams can sign an unlimited number of players for up to $20,000 each — far less than most players who would have been taken in the first 20 rounds or so would have received.

That’s where Lessar, who is 22, comes in.

“I have actually been approached by quite a few scouts since the season was cut short,” he said. “Quite a few major league teams will be looking for guys like myself, seniors who wouldn’t have gotten a lot of money if they did get drafted.”

Lessar said fellow BYU pitcher Justin Sterner, who is 23, has also been approached.

“It’s kinda sad to say, but the pandemic is working for my benefit, in a way, as far as the draft goes, because every scout that I have talked to says, ‘Hey, we are looking for a ton of free agents.’”

In March, an agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association allowed teams to delay the huge signing bonuses of previous seasons, so the maximum to be paid 2020 draftees is $100,000. The thinking is that the top high school players who have already signed to play college baseball will go ahead and take that free education and play for national championships next year, rather than take a fraction of what they could get in a year or two.

“So guys like myself, older guys, seniors, maybe some injured guys, are going to get opportunities, a lot of scouts are telling me,” Lessar said.

That means the former high school quarterback could have a big decision to make. If things return to normal, it is unlikely he would be drafted or even get a free-agent opportunity next year if he returns to BYU.

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BYU pitcher Jarod Lessar celebrates with a teammate.

Courtesy BYU Baseball

“Yeah, it is going to be a tough choice,” he said. “Right now I am leaning more toward taking the offer to play pro baseball because it would probably be my last opportunity.”

If Lessar does move on — he graduates in sociology this year — Littlewood said in late March he will be missed.

“Jarod Lessar had worked his tail off to earn a starting spot for us, and he was pretty broken up about it, as you can probably understand,” Littlewood said. “But I really believe that our guys are so mature and they have such a sense of social responsibility that they understood that this was bigger than baseball.”

When Lessar, who was coached in high school football by former BYU great Jan Jorgensen, arrived at SUU in 2015 he was asked to get bigger and move from quarterback to linebacker, then defensive line. By the time his first year in Cedar City was over, he weighed 270 pounds. He grayshirted in 2015 under then-coach Ed Lamb, now BYU’s special teams coordinator and linebackers coach.

“I hated gaining weight and I missed baseball,” he said.

So he transferred to his hometown junior college, USU Eastern, and took up baseball again. Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, he didn’t do a lot his freshman season in Price. But at a showcase event in Arizona the following fall, BYU assistant coach Trent Pratt watched him throw 92 mph fastballs, and the Cougars offered a scholarship.

Lessar posted a 3-2 record with a 4.4 earned run average in 19 appearances last year, getting 44 strikeouts in 48.2 innings. He threw 16.1 innings this spring, and the Cougars won three of his four starts. 

Having moved back to Price when the season was canceled, he recently moved back to Provo and has been working at a warehouse in Pleasant Grove and training with former Cougars Daniel Schneeman and Jackson Cluff while waiting out the baseball shutdown.

“It’s like I have some unfinished business, in a way,” Lessar said. “It’s good to know my baseball career isn’t over.”

Whether that will be in Provo or the pros remains to be seen.