From walk-on to fifth-year senior, Strecker a bullpen workhorse
NOTE: The 15th of a 16-part series of individual feature stories, leading up for No. 25 Kentucky’s 2016 season opener at Wofford on Feb. 19. Today, learn about righty Zach Strecker.
Back in the summer of 2011, after Zach Strecker had concluded his career at Louisville’s Eastern High School, he pitched in a summer league.
Strecker thought his baseball career was over after that stint, but his summer league coach, Jim Wiley, thought different. He pushed the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Strecker to attempt to walk-on through tryouts at Kentucky.
Kentucky volunteer assistant coach Keith Vorhoff was charged with walk-on tryouts and immediately spotted the potential in Strecker. The duo, along with manager Ben Jackson, worked together in an effort to see if Strecker had the desire to play collegiate baseball.
“The first month and a half, I wasn’t on the team and it was just individual workouts,” Strecker remembered. “Just me, Vor and Ben Jackson, and he ran me, did individual workouts, long toss, all stuff I had no idea I could do. He just pushed me, basically to see if I wanted to be a part of it. I give Vor a lot of credit for putting me, and making me who I am and getting me on the team.”
That started an unforeseen path for Strecker, who enters 2016 poised to become one of the most used relief pitchers in Kentucky baseball history.
“It has been a crazy ride for me,” Strecker said. “I came to UK just to go to school honestly. Jim (Wiley) gave me the courage to try out and honestly, I never expected what has happened. From my freshman year to now is unreal and I credit Hendu (Coach Gary Henderson) a lot for that. He just makes things easy for me to understand. It is unreal how much I have gotten better since freshman year.”
He opened his career with a redshirt season in 2012, watching as the Wildcats rolled off a school-record 45 wins and ascended to the program’s first No. 1 national ranking. During the redshirt season, Strecker and Henderson worked on refining his arsenal, developing a devastating splitter and improving upon a slider, all working off an upper 80s, low 90s fastball.
“When I first started, I had just learned a slider over the summer, so I didn’t really have that at all,” Henderson said. “I didn’t have a splitter, which I do now. Hendu has worked on those two pitches and they’ve gotten tremendously better and more consistent.”
As a redshirt freshman, Strecker emerged as a consistent performer in Henderson’s bullpen. The first outing of Strecker’s career came in Spartanburg, S.C., on opening weekend of 2013.
“I remember my first outing here at UK against Niagara,” Strecker said. “I threw nine pitches, struck out two. I actually crossed up the catcher a couple of times, I think it was Arnie (Zach Arnold). It was a flawless 1-2-3 inning and it was everything that I had dreamed of.”
That first outing signaled that Strecker was ready to pitch for Kentucky. His biggest outing came in an 18 inning matchup with Western Kentucky at Bowling Green Ballpark.
“The biggest ah-ha moment in my early career was the Western game in extras, that 18 inning marathon,” Strecker said. “I ended up giving up the walk-off home run but I came in bases loaded and no out and that was kind of a moment that I like to look back on.”
He sported a 2.35 ERA and a 1-1 record in 16 games as a redshirt freshman, before appearing in 18 games as a sophomore. In 2015, Strecker became UK’s most-used reliever, appearing in 25 games, with a save and a 2-2 record in 30.2 innings.
Strecker earned his second win of the year in a big stage in 2015 at No. 1 LSU, working three innings in relief, allowing just one unearned run.
“That was just a wild weekend to begin with, playing No. 1 LSU. I think I came into a tie game in the ninth and I just wanted to go out there and do what I knew I could do. It wasn’t the atmosphere that was intimidating because I had pitched there before my freshman year. It wasn’t the fact of 11,000 people screaming at you, it was more the pressure of not letting your teammates down. We had the No. 1 team in the grips and we were able to come through. A lot of lucky breaks along the way for us in that game, the (Alex) Bregman ball that hit his foot, that Connor Hale hit was fortunate.”
Strecker will join a talented and veteran bullpen that has the ability to fill a multitude of roles. Submariner Bo Wilson will be joined by Strecker from the right side, with lefties Dylan Dwyer, Zach Logue and Logan Salow poised to make a big impact.
“We have a lot of guys that can fill any role that needs to be done,” Strecker detailed. “The lefties can throw to right-handed hitters. The righties can throw to left-handed hitters. We have a bunch of guys that have so much experience in the SEC last season that we have a lot of guys that had great summers as well, they can come in to any role that may give them a challenge and they can do whatever they need to. I trust anyone of our relievers to come in seventh, eighth and ninth bases loaded and get out of it. Any one of us can do it.”
Now as a fifth-year leader, Strecker can be spotted in the bullpen instructing the 18-year old true freshmen he once aspired to be. With a seven-man senior class, Strecker’s just one of several leadership options for the youthful talents.
“I’ve grown up with these guys last four years now,” Strecker said. “You just get personal and group relationships with all of them. It is just a bond between us that really hasn’t been at UK baseball for a few years, probably since that 2012 team, honestly. It is something that really, you can’t replace. Everyone has each other’s back and everyone is there for each other.”
SEASON TICKETS NOW ON SALE
Fans can begin purchasing new season tickets and single-game tickets for the 2016 Kentucky baseball season.
For more information on UK baseball tickets, contact the Kentucky ticket office at (859) 257-1818 or visit UKathletics.com/tickets.
2016 Season Tickets:
$55 – Reserved Seating
$35 – General Admission