Kulbacki Looks to Thrive Despite Less Protection

With Nate Schill and Michael Cowgill gone, Kellen Kulbacki won't see as many good pitches


Jan. 15, 2007

By Jake Schwartzstein

Special to CSTV.com


Jake Schwartzstein

Jake is a contributor to CSTV.com.
E-mail here!

You see it every year in the majors with guys like David Ortiz, Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols. Late in a tight ballgame, with runners on base, opposing pitchers do not want to face these sluggers. More often than not, they won't see any good pitches to swing at in these situations and end up walking--opposing teams would rather make an inferior player beat them.


James Madison University's Kellen Kulbacki could empathize with these players after the way teams pitched to him at the end of last season.

Kulbacki, the Dukes' lefty centerfielder, led the nation in home runs (24), slugging percentage (.943) and OPS (1.511) and finished second in batting average (.464) and seventh in RBI (75) as a sophomore en route to an All-American season last year.


JMU head coach Joe McFarland, who led last year's team to a 38-21 record, credits Kulbacki's maturity for his stellar numbers.


"He's a very mature hitter, especially mentally," McFarland says. "That's what separates him from a lot of college hitters. He hits to all fields, doesn't carry one at-bat over to the next and has good bat speed. He can burn you away if pitched outside and can hit it onto the interstate (which lies behind the right field fence at JMU's home field) if pitched inside."


By the end of the year, opposing teams had taken notice, as he walked five times and was hit by a pitch four times in the final six games after being walked 25 times and hit 14 times in his previous 47 games.


McFarland says he sometimes got frustrated with how often he got hit, but Kulbacki took it in stride.


"I can't say if it was on purpose and I'll never know for sure, but it is interesting how many times I got hit," Kulbacki says. "I think it's a compliment in disguise. It shows pitchers were getting frustrated."


While UNC Wilmington's head coach Mark Scalf wouldn't call Kulbacki the most feared hitter in the Colonial Athletic Association, he certainly is someone opposing teams can't take lightly.


"He's definitely someone we're most aware of, especially in game-winning situations," Scalf says. "We pitch around him when we have the opportunity. When you have one player who's a whole lot hotter [than his teammates], you try to make sure someone else beats you."


In one game during the conference tournament last May, Scalf's pitchers threw very carefully to Kulbacki, walking him twice and hitting him twice en route to a 10-9 victory.


Despite the win for UNC, however, the strategy did not necessarily pay off. Fellow JMU All-American Nate Schill tallied three hits and four RBI batting behind Kulbacki in that contest. In fact, Schill (.419 BA, 14 HR, 68 RBI) batting behind him most of the season and Michael Cowgill (.291, 23, 62) hitting in front of him probably prevented many more free passes for Kulbacki.


The two biggest run producers, other than Kulbacki, for JMU last season were Schill and Cowgill. But neither of them is on the team anymore, which means Kulbacki seeing high-quality pitches to hit may become a rarity this season. McFarland admits this could be a problem for Kulbacki and the team.


"No doubt one of the big things we're concerned with is protecting him," he says. "I'd like to hit him third, but [depending on how his teammates perform] could lead him off so he could have at least one at-bat per game where he'd get something to hit."


Kulbacki acknowledges the combination of he, Cowgill and Schill was a big reason for the team's success and his individual success but is confident his current teammates can fill their shoes.


"We all fed off each other's success," Kulbacki says of the threesome. "We have two large holes to fill but we definitely have guys who can step up. It might take time to find the right combination."


Teammate Brett Sellers, a junior, also feels confident that the team will find ways to produce runs and win without Schill and Cowgill.


"The thing that's different is that we're going to have more team speed," says Sellers, who batted .306 in 24 games last year. "We're going to play a different brand of baseball. We'll do more of the little things. It'll be interesting to see how teams play us."


From an individual standpoint, Kulbacki realizes that it will be difficult to replicate last year's statistics and that he'll have to have more patience at the plate.


"It's tough to compare this year to last year," Kulbacki says. "Last year everything clicked, but it's a new season. I'm going to have to take the positives with the negatives--mentally try not to get caught up in pressing, try not to do too much. Being disciplined is going to be a huge key to success."


Kulbacki's numbers were so stellar last season that McFarland agrees it is unlikely he will be able to perform similarly this year, even if he improved in the off-season and sees just as many good pitches to hit.


"He could hit the ball harder and not have those numbers," McFarland says. "We're just trying to get him to stay focused, take one pitch at a time and one at-bat at a time. He just wants to win."

Related Stories