Baseball Preview: Flexible Kaczmarek provides options

Part 1: Sidearm Kennedy looks to acnchor pen
Part 2: Kapteyn is a Kaptializer
Part 3: Steady Wright looks for big 2011
Part 4: Cooper looks to build on 2010
Part 5: Meyer ready to take next step
Part 6: Shortstop Black Returns for Senior Season
Part 7: Flexible Kaczmarek provides options

Leading up to the 2011 season opener on Friday, Feb. 18 at No. 20 College of Charleston, is rolling out eight individual player feature stories. Today's feature is on UK senior lefthanded pitcher/outfielder Mike Kaczmarek.

Since arriving on campus as a freshman in 2008, southpaw Mike Kaczmarek has been a major piece of the Kentucky pitching staff.

A native of Orland Park, Ill., Kaczmarek came to Lexington as a highly touted recruit, boasting over 30 scholarship offers. The 6-foot, 195-pound lefty was in a recruiting class that included some very talented prospects, including fellow southpaw Logan Darnell.

As a freshman, Kaczmarek teamed with Darnell to offer UK a two-man left-handed tandem, with the duo piling up excellent numbers while supporting one of the top pitching staffs in the nation, highlighted by All-SEC performer Chris Rusin and eventual first-round draft pick James Paxton.

After his freshman season, Kaczmarek began making the next step into a key role on the pitching staff, serving as a midweek starter as a sophomore, also seeing time as a go-to reliever on the weekends.

As a junior, Kaczmarek was primed for a breakout year but he didn’t see much early time on the mound against the less-grueling non-conference portion of the schedule, pitching only twice in the first 16 games.

By the time conference play started, Kaczmarek was getting more innings and was showing the ability to excel as a late-inning left-handed reliever. But it wasn’t until April 6 against rival and Big East power Louisville that Kaczmarek truly had a breakout moment in his junior season.

With UK starting freshman Jordan Cooper against the Cardinals in a televised, full-house contest at Cliff Hagan on April 6, the Wildcats knew they couldn’t let Cooper go too long because he was valued as a key reliever on SEC weekends. After Cooper was pulled in the fourth inning with a shutout intact, Kaczmarek delivered.

The lefty was dominating, going four shutout innings with two strikeouts, allowing only one runner on base after UK’s rightfielder lost a pop-up in the lights, allowing a harmless double. After that game, it was clear that if UK was going to have success in the bullpen, Kaczmarek had to be a big part of it.

“Mike did a really good job for us last year,” UK head coach Gary Henderson said. “One of the things that Mike has figured out how to do is command three pitches in the strike zone. When a guy is consistent with three pitches in the strike zone it makes it really difficult on the opposing offenses to put a lot together. The other thing that having three pitches for strikes, is that it allows you to pitch effectively with two (pitches) on that day that your may be short on one, or it takes you a little bit of time to find one. When you have more than one way to get a guy out and you can create some doubt in the hitters mind, it makes getting outs a little bit easier.”

All told in 2010, Kaczmarek appeared in 22 games out of the bullpen, tossing 23.2 innings, walking only six and striking out 23, totaling a 1-0 record and a 5.32 ERA.

Entering his senior season, Kaczmarek will likely continue in the role he secured late in his junior season, as a late-inning matchup reliever. However, that is not all Kaczmarek will be asked to do, as the left-handed hitter grabbed a bat in the fall and is in the mix for playing time in the outfield.

Having not played the field since his days as a high school senior, Kaczmarek could provide UK with a left-handed hitting outfielder, in addition to his prowess on the bump.

“As a hitter, I think I can come in situationally if they need a left-handed hitter or an extra outfielder,” Kaczmarek said. “I am more involved with the position players then I ever have been just because in the past I would just work with the pitchers, but now being involved with the whole team, I feel like I can help mesh the position players and the pitchers together. I just want to help this team win and if I can contribute to that on the mound and at the plate, that is what I want to do.”

Now a versatile talent, no matter whether he is striking out hitters on the mound, or lacing singles up the middle, Kentucky’s success in 2011 will involve a whole lot of Kaczmarek.

“Pitching and defense will definitely be the two main strengths this year,” Kaczmarek said. “We have a lot of good, young arms that will step in and fill spots. Every pitcher we have can fill up some innings for us and we have a bunch of flexible parts to the pitching staff. That will help us late in the season when most pitching staffs are getting worn down. We will still be pretty healthy because we have so many guys that can come in to different spots.”