Patel takes advantage of opportunity on mound

| Staff Reporter

Courtesy of Scott Margolin

Junior pitcher Kunal Patel winds up for a pitch on March 22 against Illinois Wesleyan University. Patel pitched six innings and surrendered three earned runs and eight hits. His season record is 2-1, and he has a 3.15 ERA, the lowest among Washington University starters.

All junior pitcher Kunal Patel wanted was a chance. Once he got it, he made a statement.

With the Washington University baseball team in a 5-1 hole after three innings against Rhodes College on Feb. 23, head coach Steve Duncan made the call to the bullpen, and Patel made his collegiate debut in the third game of his third season with the Bears. Patel allowed just three hits and one run in five innings as Wash. U. fell to Rhodes 6-3, but he had made a strong impression.

In seven appearances this year, including four starts, Patel has a 3.15 earned-run average, the best for any Wash. U. pitcher with more than one start, and a 2-1 record. Opponents are batting only .256 against him, also the lowest among starting pitchers.

It was a long time coming for the former four-year letter winner in high school.

Patel pitched and played third base for Windward High School, a private school in Los Angeles with a high school enrollment of under 400 students, and held a career batting average of .352 and an ERA of 2.53. A two-sport athlete, Patel gave up soccer after his sophomore year when it became evident he had a chance to play baseball in college.

Despite not seeing any varsity action his first two years, Patel went into the offseason with the goal of contributing in 2014.

“My mindset going into this year was, ‘I have to show how good of a player I am, otherwise it might just be the end of my baseball career.’ That sort of ‘do-or-die’ mentality really pushed me into having the success I’ve had [this year],” Patel said.

The hard work paid off. In a meeting before the season started, Duncan informed Patel that he would be a major contributor out of the bullpen for the team.

Two games after making his debut, Patel was called on once again in relief against Emory University during University Athletic Association play. Four days later on March 13 against Brandeis University, Patel made his first career start, giving up just one run and three hits in 7 1/3 innings pitched, though the Judges plated four runs in the ninth inning to steal the win.

“I had almost no time to get ready. It was just full adrenaline, so many thoughts running through my head,” Patel said. “One thing I did think about was [how] all fall we worked so hard at getting a lot of reps with live batting, and we have so many good hitters and good athletes. My mindset was I had done well against so many of them that other hitters would be no different.”

Patel credits his performance this year to greater maturity on the mound and an accompanying change in attitude. Over the summer, he decided to mix things up a little bit in what he called “a reverse.”

“I took off some time from playing consistently and focused on a long-toss program that really helped with my arm strength and got my velocity back up. I did more explosive-type workouts than the other heavy lifting that may have made my pitching less effective,” Patel said.

Duncan is pleased to say he can’t take any credit for Patel’s development, calling him “determined,” “hard-working” and “confident.”

“The words I used to describe him are things that he’s had since freshman year. He’s displayed confidence ever since he got here, even when he wasn’t playing,” Duncan said. “He was always confident and wanted the ball. He knew that he was going to put as much work into it as he could to get better, and he’s done it.”

Duncan added that after experimenting with a side-arm delivery last season, Patel took the initiative to get back to where he needed to be over the offseason.

“I don’t think he liked it, and we didn’t get the kind of results we wanted. He gave that up over the summer and went back to throwing overhand and came in this fall and was just ready to go,” Duncan said. “It was like something had clicked for him. And I wouldn’t even begin to take credit for it; it is all a tribute to his hard work and determination.”

When Patel came back for fall offseason workouts, Duncan said it was the pitcher’s improved command that really caught his eye.

“He was throwing strikes, and he had had trouble with that in prior years. In prior years, when he was throwing strikes, he was getting hit,” Duncan said. “This fall, neither of those things were a problem for him. He was throwing strikes and keeping the ball down in the zone and had a lot of success. Maybe I’m slow to come around as a coach, but I need to see it, and he showed it to us.”

Patel is glad he stuck with baseball, saying that he can’t imagine his college life without the game he has played since age six.

“I don’t think I could be at Wash. U. and be as happy if I didn’t play baseball here,” Patel said. “With things like school to worry about, you really have to choose your priorities, and I’m glad baseball is one of them.”

An electrical engineering major and entrepreneurship minor, Patel said he hopes to work in the automotive industry after graduating in 2015. But for now, he is simply enjoying the ride.

“Overall, I can’t complain,” Patel said. “I’m glad I got my shot this year. Obviously, everybody wants to play for four years, but I don’t think I was necessarily mature and as competitive as a player my first two years. I don’t think I would change anything.”

The baseball team has a current record of 14-14 with 15 games remaining. To return to the NCAA tournament after barely missing out last year, the Bears need to win just about all of them. With Patel on the mound, as well as an experienced core of fellow starting pitchers, they’ll at least have the pitching potential to do so.

Editor’s note: the author of the piece has no relation to Kunal Patel.