U pitcher got chance after wearing coaches down with persistence

  • Article by: JASON GONZALEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 21, 2014 - 1:25 AM

Neal Kunik kept coming to open tryouts until the Gophers coaches finally gave him a chance.

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.”

  • related content

  • Chart: Big Ten baseball tournament schedule

    Tuesday May 20, 2014

    Big Ten Baseball TournamentWednesdayGame 1: No. 3 Illinois vs. No. 6 Michigan State, 9 a.m.Game 2: No. 2 Nebraska vs....

  • Neal Kunik kept coming to open tryouts until the Gophers coaches finally gave him a chance.

  • The Gophers' Neal Kunik, after not making the team three times during open tryouts, is the No. 3 starter this season.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Tennessee 7:25 PM
Jacksonville
Philadelphia 12/20/14 3:30 PM
Washington
San Diego 12/20/14 7:25 PM
San Francisco
Minnesota 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Miami
Baltimore 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Houston
Detroit 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Chicago
Cleveland 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Atlanta 12/21/14 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Green Bay 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Kansas City 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Pittsburgh
New England 12/21/14 12:00 PM
NY Jets
NY Giants 12/21/14 3:05 PM
St. Louis
Buffalo 12/21/14 3:25 PM
Oakland
Indianapolis 12/21/14 3:25 PM
Dallas
Seattle 12/21/14 7:30 PM
Arizona
Denver 12/22/14 7:30 PM
Cincinnati
Atlanta 127 FINAL
Cleveland 98
Phoenix 111 FINAL
Charlotte 106
Dallas 117 FINAL
Detroit 106
Utah 105 FINAL
Miami 87
Orlando 92 FINAL
Boston 109
Brooklyn 89 FINAL
Toronto 105
Memphis 117 FINAL
San Antonio 116
Milwaukee 97 FINAL
Portland 104
Houston 115 FINAL
Denver 111
Indiana 100 FINAL
LA Clippers 102
Ottawa 2 FINAL
New Jersey 0
Boston 3 FINAL(OT)
Minnesota 2
Dallas 2 FINAL
Vancouver 0
Langston 65 FINAL
North Texas 78
Delaware State 72 FINAL
St Francis-NY 64
James Madison 72 FINAL
Ball State 52
SIU Edwardsville 65 FINAL
Campbell 70
St Francis-PA 67 FINAL
Duquesne 52
North Florida 77 FINAL
Florida State 93
Catawba 69 FINAL
George Mason 99
Ferrum 48 FINAL
High Point 106
Hampton 55 FINAL
Illinois 73
Gardner-Webb 65 FINAL
Jacksonville 68
Longwood 60 FINAL
Miami-Ohio 71
Arkansas State 69 FINAL
Miss State 55
Tennessee 72 FINAL
NC State 83
NC A&T 55 FINAL
Ohio State 97
Manhattan 56 FINAL
Pittsburgh 65
Robert Morris 57 FINAL
Toledo 83
Char Southern 58 FINAL
Wofford 64
Kennesaw St 90 FINAL
Youngstown St 84
Barber-Scotia 52 FINAL
NC Central 108
Detroit 70 FINAL
UCF 75
Liberty 70 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 73
TX A&M-CC 73 FINAL
Denver 83
Ark-Pine Bluff 61 FINAL
Houston 56
UT Martin 54 FINAL
Illinois State 64
Milligan 76 FINAL
Louisiana 115
Abilene Christian 44 FINAL
Loyola-Chicago 83
USC Upstate 73 FINAL
Memphis 83
Alcorn State 56 FINAL
Murray State 94
Central Mich 80 FINAL
Northwestern 67
Georgia State 54 FINAL
Old Dominion 58
TX-Pan American 69 FINAL
Saint Louis 75
Ill-Chicago 46 FINAL
SMU 67
Texas State 60 FINAL
Stephen F Austin 66
SC State 39 FINAL
Texas Tech 101
Missouri State 70 FINAL
Tulsa 74
Chicago State 60 FINAL
Western Ky 75
Morehead State 50 FINAL
Green Bay 66
Northern Colorado 82 FINAL
Nebraska Omaha 92
Winthrop 62 FINAL
Auburn 80
New Mexico St 55 FINAL
Baylor 66
San Diego St 62 FINAL
Cincinnati 71
Eastern Mich 46 FINAL
Michigan State 66
Loyola Marymount 58 FINAL
Stanford 67
Incarnate Word 82 FINAL
Grand Canyon 80
Northeastern 58 FINAL
Cal Poly 60
Central Arkansas 55 FINAL
New Mexico 76
Howard 45 FINAL
Pepperdine 53
Portland 73 FINAL
UNLV 75
CS-Northridge 56 FINAL
Oregon 79
Grambling St 38 FINAL
Washington 86
Nevada 12/20/14 10:00 AM
Louisiana
Utah State 12/20/14 1:20 PM
Texas-El Paso
(23) Utah 12/20/14 2:30 PM
Colorado State
Western Mich 12/20/14 4:45 PM
Air Force
South Alabama 12/20/14 8:15 PM
Bowling Green
BYU 12/22/14 1:00 PM
Memphis
Marshall 12/23/14 5:00 PM
Northern Ill
Navy 12/23/14 8:30 PM
San Diego St
Central Mich 12/24/14 11:00 AM
Western Ky
Fresno State 12/24/14 7:00 PM
Rice
Western Carolina 79 FINAL
UNC-Asheville 66
(21) Miss State 66 FINAL
Louisiana 51
(25) DePaul 109 FINAL
Loyola-Chicago 84
Liberty 64 FINAL
NC State 67
Elon 77 FINAL
Campbell 51
Akron 73 FINAL
UCF 64
Richmond 77 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 67
Montana 70 FINAL
Seattle 64
(7) Stanford 46 FINAL
Chattanooga 54
Florida A&M 69 FINAL
Southern U 80
Oklahoma 72 FINAL
(13) Duke 92
Savannah State 56 FINAL
Auburn 62
Northern Colorado 43 FINAL
South Florida 84
Youngstown St 73 FINAL
Robert Morris 65
Siena 75 FINAL
Sacred Heart 65
Vermont 63 FINAL
St Francis-NY 61
(1) South Carolina 69 FINAL
Hampton 49
Fla Gulf Coast 91 FINAL
Bethune-Cookman 46
Texas Southern 92 FINAL
Houston Baptist 80
Northwestern 88 FINAL
UNLV 84
NC A&T 70 FINAL
Appalachian St 72
NC Central 52 FINAL
Coastal Carolina 67
Drexel 50 FINAL
Quinnipiac 74
Cincinnati 52 FINAL
Northern Ky 66
Alabama State 53 FINAL
Georgia Tech 77
Morehead St 69 FINAL
USC Upstate 75
Arkansas State 59 FINAL
Kent State 44
American Univ 60 FINAL
Manhattan 52
UNC Greensboro 60 FINAL
St Bonaventure 78
Arkansas-Monticello 56 FINAL
Northwestern St 61
Prairie View 70 FINAL
Sam Houston St 51
McNeese State 59 FINAL
(3) Texas 76
Yale 90 FINAL
Wagner 65
Oakland 61 FINAL
TX A&M-CC 54
Eastern Kentucky 62 FINAL
Alabama A&M 56
SIU-Edwardsville 47 FINAL
Northern Ill 69
McMurry 25 FINAL
TX-Arlington 82
Portland 65 FINAL
Eastern Washington 72
North Texas 42 FINAL
San Francisco 60

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Who is your favorite pro sports coach in the Twin Cities?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close