By CONOR NICHOLL firstname.lastname@example.org
After a stellar prep career at Kirkwood (Mo.) High School, Kurt Wunderlich decided to forgo his senior year of high school baseball and signed early with Michigan State University. In his first game as a freshman, Wunderlich delivered a relief appearance that impressed the Spartan coaches, and then two years later, Hays Larks manager Frank Leo.
On Feb. 22, 2008, the Spartans opened the season at Stetson (Fla.) University.
Michigan State carried a 4-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth when Stetson delivered a single and game-tying homer to lead off the inning off Spartan reliever A.J. Dunn. Then, Dunn allowed a single to Justin Bass before Wunderlich, the team's youngest pitcher, entered the game.
After a flyout, Bass, the potential winning run, stole second and advanced to third on a wild pitch. Next, Wunderlich issued back-to-back intentional walks to loaded the bases. The freshman worked out of the jam with two strikeouts, including one K on a full count pitch.
Michigan State scored two runs in the top of the 10th and eventually won 6-4 when Wunderlich pitched a scoreless 10th, and struck out two more batters.
"They saw something real special in him then and we are seeing it right now," Leo said.
After two solid years with the Spartans, Wunderlich joined the Larks this summer. After he started the season in the bullpen, Wunderlich moved into the rotation in mid-June. He improved to 6-0 and lowered his earned-run average to 2.52 after he pitched a complete game shutout in a losers' bracket game in the National Baseball Congress World Series on Saturday afternoon. Hays won 5-0 over the San Diego Waves at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium and will play Nevada (Mo.) Griffons in a 5 p.m. contest today. Nevada is a former Jayhawk League team. Ace Andrew Heck (5-0) is expected to start.
"(Kurt) just gets hitters out in front," Leo said. "He just changes speeds so well. He has command of four pitches."
Wunderlich became the first Larks pitcher to throw a nine-inning complete game since Brock Nehls tossed one at the 2007 NBC World Series. Wunderlich and Andrew Heck are the lone pitchers to work nine innings this season. Both accomplished the feat twice. Also, Wunderlich is the fourth pitcher in Larks history to have a 6-0 or better record.
"Every game that he went out, he was very consistent for us," Leo said.
Through 54 NBC games, Wunderlich is one of four pitchers in the tournament that has worked at least nine innings and not allowed a earned run. His outing kept Hays (29-15, 1-2 NBC) alive.
"Probably one of the best starts in the losers' bracket that we have had in a long time," Leo said.
Friday's outing and Wunderlich's terrific summer, though, started in Des Peres, Mo., at Kirkwood High, located in southwest St. Louis. At Kirkwood, Wunderlich captured league MVP honors as a sophomore and played two seasons for an East Cobb team that advanced to the World Wood Bat Championships.
After an all-conference junior season, Wunderlich's mother, Cynthia, delivered the idea of an early start to Wunderlich's collegiate career. Wunderlich, a business administration/pre-law major, had a 3.9 GPA and wanted to stay healthy. According to a 2008 Lansing State-Journal story, a paper that regularly covers Michigan State, then-Spartan head coach David Grewe called Wunderlich's early choice "an unprecedented decision has far as he knows." Wunderlich, part of a 10-person recruiting class that includes Larks center fielder Brandon Eckerle, chose Michigan State over Duke and Missouri, and played immediately.
"I have some friends who got micro-tears in their labrums, so I was worried about making the safest choice," Wunderlich said. "(My Kirkwoood coach) wanted me to go complete games, and I didn't want to get injured."
Wunderlich opened the year with the terrific performance against Stetson in what Leo labeled "a hostile environment."
Wunderlich, who left Michigan State for a short time late in 2008 to attend Kirkwood's prom, finished the season with a 3-2 record and 5.67 earned-run average. In 2009, Wunderlich posted a 5-5 record and 6.05 ERA in 19 appearances, second-most on the team, and helped MSU advance to the Big 10 tournament for the first time since 2004.
Wunderlich, who opened the summer in relief, is expected to start next fall for Michigan State after he made one start, against Clemson, this spring. Leo and Larks pitching coach Keith Harper were uncertain of Wunderlich's role in early June. On June 13, because of a depleted staff, Wunderlich moved into the rotation and delivered a complete game against Liberal. He has been the team's No. 3 starter since.
"He was one of the those in-between guys as what we were going to do with him," Leo said. "We lost some starting pitchers and we gave him an opportunity that he never ceased to give up."
"It's been nice being a starter," Wunderlich added. "You know when you have your days off, you know when you have to throw."
Wunderlich has exhibited strong command that includes a fastball, slider and changeup, all pitches that he can work to both sides of the plate. Leo said Wunderlich has often forced batters to "roll over" and hit ground balls and easy popups.
"He does a fantastic job of that," Leo said.
Wunderlich's control and varied arsenal has yielded a .214 opponents' batting average, easily the best among Hays' four starters. Heck ranks second with a .248 average. Wunderlich's 641βΡ3 innings and 42 to 16 strikeout to walk rate are second to Heck.
Wunderlich kept the same approach against San Diego on Friday. Hays has used four relievers in a Friday night loss and several pitchers were unavailable. Wunderlich mixed his pitches and constantly pounded strikes. He allowed five hits and two walks against four strikeouts. The right-hander also accumulated 13 outs from ground balls and did not allow an extra base hit.
"I threw a couple changeups to righties," he said. "They looked like a couple free swingers, so you have to keep them guessing. A lot of lefties got a lot of changeups. You just have to attack the strike zone. You can't give them any free bases. I gave them two walks, shouldn't have happened."
Hays' defense turned four double plays and Wunderlich rarely had any trouble. Only once all game did Wunderlich lose focus. In the seventh, Wunderlich issued a one-out walk but a double play ended the threat. Harper met Wunderlich outside the dugout when the right-hander walked back to the dugout.
"I threw four just crappy, I was just trying to throw too hard," Wunderlich said. "Just trying to stay through the ball."
Under 97 degree heat, Wunderlich had a quick eighth inning and pitched a scoreless ninth with the same calmness and poise he showed two years ago at Stetson.
"Just relaxed out there," he said. "Just attack the strike zone, If you get frustrated, you get beat up."