The natural

Slippery Rock two-way star discusses his mentality and path to becoming a Division II double-threat

Published by Aidan Treu, Date: April 25, 2024
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The hardest thing to do in sports is hit a baseball. Throwing multiple pitches with a consistent motion to high level hitters is up there too.

As a general rule of thumb, the higher the level of baseball, the fewer two-way players one will come across.

Enter the 2024 Slippery Rock University baseball team.

Out of The Rock’s top six qualified hitters in on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS), three of them are two-way players.

Michael Kitko, Gage Gillott and Joey Purcell all currently hold an OPS above .850 and a batting average above .320.

Kitko does not pay those numbers much mind though, as he prefers to leave his focus on the field.

“I don’t really look at that. I don’t really look at stats a whole lot. I just try to focus on myself and try to get better. I don’t really look at other people’s stats,” Kitko said.

Kitko, who holds claim to the White and Green’s third highest batting average at .350, is doing it all as a sophomore who has not been pitching all that long in terms of his baseball career.

“I pitched in little league a little bit but never really pitched in travel ball or anything. I didn’t really start pitching until junior year of high school, and I was mainly a catcher and first baseman whenever I was playing the field. Pitching was kind of new,” Kitko said.

In just his second season of NCAA Division II baseball, he is putting up electric numbers at the plate with the team’s third most at bats and an elite earned run average (ERA) with the team’s sixth most innings pitched.

To make it even scarier for Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) rivals, Kitko pointed out his pitching mechanics could use some reforming despite his 1.00 ERA across 18 innings pitched.

“I basically just throw it,” Kitko said.

Purcell commented on how dominant the team’s two-way players have been when their command is on, even with the room for growth.

“When we do throw strikes, I can’t remember a time we really got hit up a lot,” Purcell said.

As two-way players rise up the ranks in baseball, it often becomes difficult to focus on both hitting and pitching.

Many players taken in the MLB draft will immediately decide either pitching or hitting to focus on with their organization. Many of those who do not choose immediately will become a pitcher or hitter exclusively soon after because either their pitching or hitting is lacking.

Kitko does his best not to make it a big deal. His mindset is to stay focused on the game as a whole. As long as he is dialed in on the game, he is dialed in both ways.

“Mentally, it’s no different. I just try to stay locked in the whole game no matter what… mentally nothing changes,” Kitko said.

The second-year player has his preference of the two, but his talent has kept him in the game both ways.

“I’d definitely rather hit. Honestly, I’m not a fan of pitching. I do it because I’m good at it,” Kitko said.

Pitchers and hitters often struggle when they get too nervous or tense. Watch any major league All-Star closely, and it will be almost impossible to tell that they have at least hundreds of thousands of people watching them, if not millions. Not to mention the fact that someone else is getting paid millions of dollars to not let them reach base, just 60 feet and six inches away.

Part of Kitko’s workflow is keeping that all out of his mind. The righty discussed the best way for him to be prepared both ways.

“Just getting loose is the main part. Stay loose,” Kitko said.

Staying calm and keeping the anxiety away is much easier after a good night’s sleep. While many baseball players have superstitions about what they need to do or eat before a game, Kitko says the key to being ready is to “just try to get eight hours of sleep.”

Kitko co-authored Slippery Rock baseball’s most recent no-hitter with Purcell. The March 17 pitching masterclass was The Rock’s seventh no-hitter since 2003 and third combined no-hitter since 2019.

The game gave a good look into how Kitko utilizes his pitching arsenal to this point. A lot of relievers just throw two pitches. That is not the case for the Moshannon Valley High School graduate, which helps his pitches play up even better.

“I threw mainly fastballs, then I mixed in the cutter and curveball every once in a while,” Kitko said.

Not only did he allow no hits over his two innings of work, he also struck out four of the seven batters he faced.

In the bottom of the eighth, the inning he first pitched in, Kitko made his presence felt from the batter’s box as well. In true two-way star fashion, he homered in the same game he had a dominant pitching outing in.

His reaction after the game is a testament to his mindset. Kitko allowed no outside elements to affect his game, to the point of not even realizing he had completed a no-hitter.

“I had to ask, I said, ‘wait, is that a no-hitter?’” Kitko said.

Kitko was no stranger to being a dynamic athlete in high school either. The Houtzdale, Pa. native lettered four times in basketball, but his success went deeper than that. He earned recognition as an Inter-County Conference (ICC) honorable mention and was selected to play in the ICC vs. Mountain League All-Star Game.

The multi-sport athlete did not slack in the classroom either as he was a member of the National Honor Society.

This is all in addition to his accomplishments on the baseball diamond, the other sport he lettered in four times. The sophomore earned three All-ICC honors, was named to the first team twice and was a three-time Moshannon Valley League All-Star.

His freshman year at The Rock, he tallied 18 strikeouts and a 4.61 ERA over 13.2 innings on the mound.

Perhaps making his 2024 offensive breakout even more impressive, Kitko did not accrue a single at bat in 2023.

Kitko has always stayed focused on hitting though. Growing up, someone he wanted to model his game after was “David Ortiz, even though I play nothing like him. He’s always been my favorite player.”

As for current players, Kitko wants his bat to replicate two players on his favorite team, the Boston Red Sox.

“Now I’m looking at Jarren Duran and Tristan Casas,” Kitko said.

Just a sophomore with 16 games still on SRU baseball’s regular season schedule in 2024, Kitko has plenty of time to continue adding to his already impressive resume with the White and Green.

One thing Kitko knows he wants to add to his career is not an accolade, but rather a new pitch he has been working on.

“My [favorite pitch] is a knuckleball, but I’m technically not allowed to throw it,” Kitko said. “It’s the grossest thing you’ll ever see.”

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