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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Increased focus, nasty cutter spark Stephen Kolek’s recent excellence

Sophomore+Stephen+Kolek+improved+to+3-2+on+the+season+on+Sunday%2C+allowing+one+hit+in+6.2+stellar+innings.
Photo by Photo by Cassie Stricker

Sophomore Stephen Kolek improved to 3-2 on the season on Sunday, allowing one hit in 6.2 stellar innings.

Texas A&M was nearly halfway through its SEC schedule, and Stephen Kolek was struggling. He was coming off two consecutive poor outings — he got shelled by Vanderbilt for 10 earned runs in 2.2 innings and then scuffled through 5.2 innings of four-run ball in a loss at LSU — and he was uncertain about his status in the Aggies’ starting rotation.
Then came a one-on-one meeting with Rob Childress where the A&M head coach was very straightforward: he told Kolek he didn’t know if he was going to start the upcoming weekend against Auburn — it would depend on how the series unfolded.
Little did Childress know at the time that one meeting would be the impetus for an incredible stretch of pitching dominance for the sophomore right-hander from Shepherd. Heading into the series finale against Ole Miss Sunday, Kolek is 2-0 with a 1.33 ERA in his last five starts, and he attributes much of his recent success to increased focus stemming from that discussion with Childress.
“It was kind of a little bit of a wake-up call,” Kolek says of the heart-to-heart talk with his coach. “After that I guess it just lit a fire and got me going.”
Childress, who is considered by most as one of the best pitching coaches in college baseball, says he’s seen a new and improved pitcher from the one who took the mound against LSU on March 31.
“From that point on, the last five weeks he’s been nothing short of our best guy,” Childress says. “I think we’re seeing a much more determined, more competitive pitcher.”
The reserved Kolek admits he was worried about his spot in the rotation, but he maintained a positive attitude and did not let his two rough starts bring down the rest of the team.
“He’s very even-keel,” says A&M second baseman Braden Shewmake. “He realized what he did, he went back and watched it, fixed some stuff, came back and has been masterful ever since.”
A pivotal part of Kolek’s recent mastery has been the emergence of his cutter. He throws it with the velocity of a traditional cut-fastball, but it possesses late horizontal movement as well, almost like a slider.
“His stuff has been as good as any stuff I’ve seen in a long time,” Shewmake says. “[His cutter] is such a great pitch. As a lefty with that pitch going down into you — it looks like a strike until it gets about a foot from you and then it disappears.”
The switch flipped for Kolek’s cutter in the week leading up to the Auburn series. He worked on it more than usual in his weekly bullpen sessions and began throwing it more often when playing catch with teammates. He has always thrown the pitch, but before Auburn he described it as an “average pitch” — now he has pinpoint control of the offering and can throw it exactly where he wants.
The speed and break of Kolek’s cutter make it an effective pitch against both left-handed and right-handed hitters, and have contributed heavily to Kolek’s recent surge in strikeouts. After averaging less than three strikeouts per start through the LSU weekend, he has reached double digits in strikeouts on two different occasions — against Tennessee on April 23 and then last weekend against Mississippi State.
His increased cutter effectiveness has also made the other pitches in his four-pitch arsenal more overpowering. With hitters well aware of the nastiness of his cutter, Kolek can catch them by surprise by throwing his fastball, curveball or changeup in any count.
“They’re looking for the cutter now, so whenever you throw something else it throws them off even more,” says Kolek, who is 3-2 with a 3.31 ERA in 2017. “It’s kind of a domino effect.”
He has commanded all four of his pitches well in his last five starts, and the statistics speak for themselves. Opposing hitters are hitting a paltry .176 against Kolek during that time and he has allowed four hits or fewer in three of those five starts, including the 6.2 innings of one-hit ball he tossed against Missouri back on April 30.
“He’s staying within himself, he’s pitching the way we know he can pitch. He’s trusting the defense, letting them work, and getting it back to the offense and giving us a chance to win baseball games,” says junior reliever Kaylor Chafin. “He’s been unreal — it’s lights out. He’s been doing everything we could ask for and more and hopefully he can keep it going.”
Count Shewmake among the group of those who think Kolek can certainly keep this hot streak going. He has a fantastic view of the pitches from his perch at second base and he can tell when a pitcher has all his pitches working and is going to make things tough on the opponent that night.
“When we’re sitting back there, we know what’s coming and we know when people are in trouble,” Shewmake says. “When you watch the first inning and you can see his stuff is completely and totally gross from back there, you know what the hitters are going through up there.”
According to Shewmake, who homered twice in the Aggies’ convincing 12-4 series opening win, he has foreseen Kolek’s dominance after the first inning in each of his last five starts.
Kolek, for his part, says the biggest key for him to maintain his latest success is to stay humble and not get complacent. If he can continue the laser focus he displayed when his starting job was on the line, he has the ability to keep missing bats and getting outs at a tremendous clip.
“I’m just trying to continuously tell myself,” Kolek says, “that I need to earn my spot every weekend.”
His next challenge comes Sunday in the rubber match against the Rebels in Oxford as the Aggies try to clinch another series win. First pitch is scheduled for noon on the SEC Network, and Kolek will attempt to deliver another quality outing for his team.
With the postseason on the horizon, Kolek has the potential to be a valuable weapon on the A&M pitching staff as the Aggies work their way through the SEC tournament, NCAA Regional play and beyond.
“He’s going to do what he’s been doing the whole time,” Shewmake says. “He’s going to stay even-keel and he’s going to continue to throw. I think he’s going be just as good, if not better, than he’s been all year long.”

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  • Photo courtesy of Texas A&M Athletics.

    Photo by Sam Craft

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