BRIDGEWATER – It would be somewhat easy to dismiss the start to Kyle Zurak’s season, if you felt so inclined.
You’d be wrong, but you could certainly still try.
For a 27-year-old reliever in Double-A, a 0.00 ERA that he maintained through the first nine outings of the year before a rough appearance in the Somerset Patriots ’12-4 loss to the Reading Fightin’ Phils on Thursday night might not be much for the “prospect” folks to bat an eye at.
Numbers speak for themselves, however.
Age? It’s just that, Zurak says. A number.
“I wouldn’t say it’s now or never, but I definitely want to get going here,” Zurak said. “I’m 27, this is my sixth year on my contract – I’ve got one more left until I’m a free agent – and I’m not getting younger, but at 27, I say that like I’m 45 In baseball life, 27 is a little bit older to not have had pitched at this level or higher prior. … I do not really look at the age thing, more that it ‘s funny to see guys that are that much younger than me. But I’ve got a good outlook on everything. “
Understandably so, given what he’s been through to even get to this point.
An eighth-round pick out of Radford University by the Yankees in 2017, Zurak was seemingly climbing the ladder of success to one day pitch in the big leagues wearing pinstripes; he was invited to the prestigious Arizona Fall League at the end of his second pro season and posted a 2.93 ERA with then-High-A Tampa in his third, set to get the call to Double-A in 2020.
Instead, after that season was wiped out due to COVID, the call he got was from a surgeon prior to the start of the 2021 season, with repair on a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) needed. If he underwent the standard “Tommy John” surgery, the Buffalo native says that with the 12- to 18-month recovery process, he does not know if he’d still be playing.
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Fortunately for him, he was able to elect to undergo a less invasive procedure, a trademarked UCL repair surgery using something called InternalBrace. According to CincySportsSurgeon.com, “the native UCL is repaired and reinforced by a strong tape-like suture material secure into both the humerus and ulna bones with plastic anchors. The suture tape is coated in collagen to encourage a natural healing response, and the tape protects the ligament while it heals, and continues to structurally support the ligament against extreme valgus stresses seen in the elbow during high-velocity throwing, especially baseball pitching. ”
In short, even after a March surgery, Zurak was back on the mound at the tail end of last season, getting into one inning of a Florida Complex League game in September, a procedure that Zurak says gave him “a new lease on baseball life ”Having been successful.
The affable 6-foot-1, 208-pound reliever has been working his way back ever since, and part of the credit to his early success can certainly be given to the way he’s been used thus far; he’s never been deployed on fewer than three days’ rest and has pitched no more than two innings in any given outing.
“We just make sure he’s recovering well every single outing, giving him the days that he needs,” said Patriots pitching coach Gerardo Casadiego. “I think that’ll pay off, being fresh and being able to recover well from every outing he’s had. So far, that’s paid off with his success. ”
Zurak is a different pitcher now than he was prior to surgery, as you may expect. As you may not, however, he says it’s for the better. Having lost a little bit of velocity on his fastball – from mid 90s to topping out at around 92 mph early on this season – has actually forced him to learn different approaches instead of just relying on trying to blow it by hitters.
“My velo being down, I’m learning how to pitch, I think,” he said. “I was just talking to my dad about it the other day, he’s like, ‘Before, you were a power pitcher, now you’re a pitcher. You’re moving the ball, shaping the ball, trying to hit your spots even better than you were prior, ‘I think that’s very true. I’ve got to be able to move my sinker, I’ve got to be able to move my cutter, and I’ve got to be able to manipulate my slider, because I’m kind of throwing two different sliders depending on the situation, count, batter, whatever it may be. ”
Those sliders have been Zurak’s bread and butter so far, and Casadiego, who has been Zurak’s pitching coach in numerous stops along his career, including rookie ball in Pulaski and then again in the Fall League, has seen significant development in it.
“You can see that in every outing, he uses more sliders, and he’s able to land that slider when he’s down in the count,” Casadiego said. “He uses cutters and two-seamers when he needs it. For sure, (surgery is) something that you do not want to go through, but it’s like, ‘OK, now I need to learn how to pitch a little bit.’ That was his situation, and he’s taken advantage of the situation he was facing. I think he’s doing really well with it. “
As many minor leaguers do, Zurak has worked a variety of offseason jobs – most recently at a CWC commercial furniture warehouse, but also at Lululemon, Vineyard Vines, and also doing club fittings for TaylorMade Golf – but, having struck out 21 batters in 14 2/3 innings thus far in 2022, has shown there’s still plenty left in the tank for a big-league roster spot to one day pay the bills.
“Things are going well, and that’s good, obviously, but I’ve felt things were going well before, and then there was the pandemic and all that other stuff happened threw a wrench in everything,” he said. “And then, obviously, getting hurt. It was taking a big step back. I think it’s just showing them I can do it and I’ve still got it in me, and I’m still on that same path. My stuff might be a little different now, but I’m still that same competitor and that same guy. ”