Neal Kunik developed a habit the past three years of doing homework from the stands at Gophers baseball games. Schoolwork struggled to hold his attention as his eyes and thoughts wandered to the pitching mound.
The former Eagan High School pitcher wondered how he might have fared against the opposing hitters. Three times, Kunik walked into the Gophers open tryouts seeking a roster spot. He was turned away each time.
Kunik wouldn’t stop throwing.
“Every year he came out we got closer and closer to thinking we should keep this guy. Most of the time it came down to not having a roster spot available,” Gophers pitching coach Todd Oakes said. “This year when he came out he did what he always does, and we had a roster spot open. It became logical. Why not take this kid and give him a chance? And we’re glad we did.
“It’s all about perseverance. He just kind of wore us out and kept coming out and impressing us.”
Kunik has given the Gophers coaching staff something they couldn’t have anticipated. Six months after finally fulfilling his dream of playing Division I college baseball, Kunik replaced a typical Sunday doing homework for a starting job on the Gophers pitching staff.
Impressive relief outings earned the righthanded pitcher the No. 3 starter role in late April. Kunik is 2-2 with a 2.84 ERA, 23 strikeouts and 10 walks in 11 appearances, including five consecutive starts. In 44⅓ innings, opponents are hitting just .231 against him.
He closed out the Gophers’ regular season last Sunday with his fifth start against nationally ranked Indiana. The pitch-to-contact hurler gave up four runs on seven hits and had three strikeouts and a walk in 5⅓ innings in an eventual 8-0 loss to the Hoosiers. Oakes and head coach John Anderson are happy as long as Kunik gives the Gophers a chance to win, something he has done in each start.
Kunik and the rest of the Gophers pitching staff have a big task this week at the Big Ten tournament in Omaha, Neb. The No. 4-seeded Gophers open against No. 5 Michigan on Wednesday night and likely will need to win the tournament to claim a berth in the NCAA tournament.
“It hurts, even the second time” when you’re turned away, said Kunik, who briefly considered transferring after a second rejection. “But I eventually knew I was going to keep trying out here, or nothing at all. … People fail. It’s OK to fail. You just gotta keep fighting for it. If you really want to do it, you have to keep working toward it.”
Below-average velocity and a lack of experience haven’t deterred Kunik from excelling in his new role. Oakes said he pitches with a town ball mentality that is carefree and focused on fun. It was with the Eagan town ball team where Kunik kept his arm in shape over the past three summers. His variation of pitches fill up the strike zone, he shows no fear and works quick, according to fellow Gophers pitcher Ty McDevitt.
Catcher Mark Tatera, who’s played with him since they were kids, said Kunik started pitching late in youth baseball because he never threw hard enough. Once Kunik figured out to pitch to his strengths and control several pitches, Tatera believed the junior could play Division I baseball.
Tatera believed so much that he invested time catching bullpen sessions for his old friend around campus or in the Rosemount Dome whenever possible. Now the two have a special chemistry working together in the Big Ten.
“Coming into this year I knew he’d be a guy that could eat up innings for us, which is what he did against Nebraska — came in for five innings and just shut down their lineup” midway through the season, Tatera said. “From that time on, I knew if he ever got the chance to start he’d be good for us, and he’s been very good.”
Kunik got his first start against Iowa on April 23 — six innings, three hits, no runs, two strikeouts, one walk and a no-decision. A week later, he threw seven innings, gave up no runs on three hits, and had nine strikeouts and three walks for the win against Penn State. He was awarded the Big Ten’s co-pitcher of the week award after the impressive outing.
Anderson said Kunik can skip open tryouts next fall.
“I think Neal has made his mark. Who would have thought four years ago that he’d be here starting on Sunday and going to earn a letter?” Anderson said. “He wrote down his dream was always to be a Gopher and he kept chasing his dream until he finally wore us out.”