Kent State's Ace Is More Than A Flash In The Pan

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SAN DIEGO—On a Friday night in San Diego, Kent State junior righthander Tyler Skulina dominated a good Toreros lineup for eight innings, then handed off to the bullpen for the ninth, with the Golden Flashes leading 1-0.

He spent the ninth glued to the dugout railing, hollering his support for his teammates louder than anyone else at USD's gleaming new Fowler Park.

"After they tied the game up and he was no longer getting a decision, he was still the guy yelling," Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said afterward. "It tells you a lot about the kid; he's a great kid."

Skulina's boisterousness in the dugout is an important manifestation of his progression into a confident, mature pitcher who truly leads his staff and has earned his status as the Mid-American Conference's top draft prospect.

Skulina was a prominent prospect on the national scouting map as a junior at Ohio's Walsh Jesuit High, just 20 minutes or so from Kent State. He ranked as the nation's No. 82 high school prospect heading into his senior year, but a strain in his upper back and "a dead arm," as Stricklin put it, caused his stock to fall that spring. He fell to the 46th round of the draft, and instead of signing, he attended Virginia. But Skulina said he soon realized that UVa. "just wasn't a good fit" for him, and his high school coaches put him in touch with Stricklin and Kent State pitching coach Mike Birkbeck. He decided to leave Virginia after one semester and return to Ohio to pitch for Kent State, even though it meant sitting out 2011.

"When he got to us two years ago, he was out of shape a little bit, and I think he had lost a little bit of the love for the game, for whatever reason," Stricklin said. "Being away from home is tough on some kids."

And sitting out a year is tough for any high-level athlete with a competitive streak, but Skulina made the best of it.

"It was good for me to sit out a little bit, let me get my mechanics squared out, get my pitches squared out," Skulina said. "I went from high school to UVa., and then back here; I was kind of out of rhythm, out of sync a little bit. Coach Birkbeck stuck with me for a long time. They had their preseason stuff coming up about a month and a half away, and he was working with me every day. Just great dedication on his part."

Under the expert tutelage of Birkbeck, a former big leaguer and Baseball America's 2012 Assistant Coach of the Year, Skulina worked to smooth out his mechanics, improve his timing and harness his 6-foot-6, 225-pound frame. The year on the sidelines helped prepare him for the summer of 2011 in the New England Collegiate League, where he teamed with fellow Flashes David Lyon and Derek Toadvine to lead Keene to the championship.

Then, finally, he got to take the mound in Division I action last spring, spending most of the season as Kent State's No. 3 starter. It took him some time to fine-tune his control and his repertoire, but by the time May rolled around he was running his fastball into the mid-90s and hitting his spots, and backing it up with a big league slider in the mid-80s.

Skulina came up big during Kent State's run to its first-ever College World Series, going seven strong innings to win the regional clincher against Kentucky, then throwing 52⁄3 frames of two-hit, shutout ball in the decisive third game of the Eugene Super Regional. Eleven days later, he found himself going head-to-head with South Carolina superstar Michael Roth in the College World Series. Though he lost that one, he pitched well, striking out nine over 52⁄3 innings.

"I've pitched in a lot of big games—one set up the next one and the next one," Skulina said. "It's one of those things you have to slow yourself down, because your adrenaline's going, you've got to just step off the mound, take a couple deep breaths, get your bearings a little bit. Just know you control the pace of the game."

That goes back to Skulina's maturation process. He has made great strides with the mental side of his game since arriving at Kent State, as evidenced by the way he bounced back against USD after struggling in his season debut a week earlier against Virginia Tech. He allowed just two hits over eight shutout innings against the Toreros, walking two and striking out six. He pitched in the 91-93 mph range early and settled into the 88-91 range late, though he still hit 92 in the eighth inning. He also gave the Toreros fits with that tight power slider in the 80-84 range, and he mixed in a low-70s curveball for strikes. He only threw a couple of changeups, but Stricklin said that pitch actually has become a decent weapon against lefthanded hitters.

The Toreros were impressed, and they buzzed about Skulina even after they rallied from behind with two in the ninth to beat the Kent State bullpen.

"The guy's a big leaguer," USD coach Rich Hill said. "I mean, Tyler's going to pitch on TV one day."

Skulina's stuff has gotten better across the board at Kent State, but just as importantly, he has fallen in love with baseball again—and it shows in the way he cheers his teammates on with everything he's got.

"I think the biggest thing is he's taken on a little bit more of a leadership role," Stricklin said. "When he was pitching for us last year, that was his first year pitching, so he wasn't as vocal. He's been more vocal this year, and he's an extremely hard worker. He's going to have a great year for us."