Triple Crown candidate focuses on postseason
James Madison outfielder Kellen Kulbacki is among the nation's leaders in home runs, batting average and RBI. Stats don't motivate Kulbacki; a chance at making the regionals in the NCAA Tournament does.
When scouts evaluate players, they look for certain skills: hitting for average, hitting for power, running, fielding and throwing. But according to James Madison sophomore outfielder Kellen Kulbacki, there's another trait needed to succeed at the highest level of competition.
"You need to have mental skills," said Kulbacki. "I have found that the majority of baseball is mental. You have to be mentally tough to succeed."
"I read online and saw on TV how some guys in the majors were doing that," Kulbacki said of his work with a sports psychologist. "It's starting to hit me just how much that has helped me."
Indeed, Kulbacki says those visits enabled him to chase one of the rarest feats in baseball -- the Triple Crown.
According to the NCAA Baseball Records Book, the only player since 1965 to lead all of Division I in batting average, home runs and RBI is Mike Smith of Indiana in 1992. (The book records home run and RBI champions since 1965; the batting champions date back to 1957.)
Kulbacki currently leads the nation in home runs (22), ranks second in the nation in batting (.485), and is fourth in RBI (68). With increased attention being paid to his Triple Crown pursuit, it would be understandable for a kid not yet 21 to get overwhelmed by the pressure.
But you could never tell by listening to him.
"Obviously, I understand what's going on," Kulbacki said. "I can't let myself get caught up with what's going on. The main focus from Day 1 is to do what's best for the team."
"He's a good kid. Very humble," James Madison head coach Spanky McFarland said. "He always compliments his teammates."
There's plenty for Kulbacki to be excited about when it comes to his teammates. The Dukes (32-18, 19-7 CAA) are in a battle with Old Dominion for the CAA regular-season crown. Although in recent years the CAA has sent multiple teams to the NCAA regionals, there's no guarantee the Dukes will receive an at-large bid, making the conference tournament all the more important.
"Winning [a Triple Crown] is kind of unbelievable, and it would be a tremendous honor," Kulbacki said. "But I would rather have us make the regionals or go further. That is my main focus."
Kulbacki also realizes the benefits of playing in a lineup that ranks second in the nation in home runs, runs per game and slugging percentage.
Hitting in front of the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Kulbacki in the lineup is second baseman Michael Cowgill, the school's career home run leader, who currently trails Kulbacki by one in homers this season. Right behind Kulbacki in the order is first baseman Nate Schill, who is hitting .428 and, along with Kulbacki, is on the Dick Howser Trophy Watch List.
"For me, it's kind of comforting to know you have [Cowgill and Schill] hitting around you," Kulbacki said. "It's great, because you can't pitch around any of us."
Make no mistake, though, Kulbacki is the star of the show this season. Along with his Triple Crown numbers, he also leads the Dukes in runs scored, total bases, slugging percentage, on-base percentage and stolen bases.
"I really can't believe this season," Kulbacki said. "It's good to know the hard work is paying off."
"It's been fun to watch teams try to figure out how to pitch him," McFarland said.
Kulbacki's success has not been a surprise for McFarland, who says he knew he had something special in his very first at-bat his freshman season.
"The improvement from his freshman season to this season has been outstanding," McFarland said. "He hasn't done anything really different in his mechanics, but he has a much better approach at the plate. He's just being very patient."
A stint in the Cape Cod Baseball League this upcoming summer might enhance Kulbacki's reputation. Getting an invite into the prestigious amateur baseball league took some work by McFarland, who said he called Cotuit Kettleers coach Mike Roberts at least five times in an effort to get Kulbacki on that team.
"I told [Roberts], if this kid doesn't get hurt, he will be a major leaguer," McFarland said. "I think I've only said that five times in 29 years as a coach in this business."
Michael Freer is a researcher for ESPNU. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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