VALPARAISO | Karch Kowalczyk is used to watching baseball games far from the rest of his teammates.
As the Horizon League Relief Pitcher of the Year, Kowalczyk spends the majority of his games in the bullpen, waiting for his number to be called.
While the bullpen may not be close to the action on the field, it’s considerably closer from where Kowalczyk was forced to watch last season’s NCAA tournament when the Valparaiso closer was recovering from Tommy John surgery.
“I was up in the stands, sitting on a picnic table,” Kowalczyk said. “It was so tough to be there, watching my guys play, and not be able to help out.”
The NCAA allows teams to dress just 27 players for the postseason and the rest of the team is not allowed to travel. For Valparaiso, that meant six players were left on the sidelines at the U.S.S. Steel Yard last season and for Kowalczyk, that meant he didn’t get to experience the NCAA tournament as a participant.
Getting back to the NCAA tournament and getting on the field became a driving force during Kowalczyk’s rehabilitation last summer. The junior closer worked on getting his speed back and then his location before finally getting the go-ahead early in the fall. What followed was a dominating season where Kowalczyk racked up 12 saves while giving up just 12 hits in 22 appearances.
“Karch is a bulldog,” Valparaiso coach Tracy Woodson said. “When he is in the game, you think the game is already over.”
Kowalczyk’s road back from Tommy John surgery culminated last weekend when he registered three straight saves in the Horizon League tournament. The junior struck out Wright State’s Garrett Gray on a 0-2 slider on the pitch of the tournament, clinching Valparaiso’s trip back to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season.
“It was just awesome, exactly how I’d want to draw it up,” Kowalczyk said. “This year is so much sweeter for me. I feel a lot more immersed into everything that is happening.”
The Crusaders (31-26) face a tall task this evening in taking on Big Ten champion Indiana. The Hoosiers (43-13) will throw Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Aaron Slegers (9-1, 1.93 ERA) while Valparaiso will send out Cole Webb (5-7, 3.59 ERA). Getting Kowalczyk into the game with a lead will require the Crusaders to shake off any NCAA-jitters and capitalize on any Indiana mistakes.
“I just want to go out there and do my part,” Kowalczyk said. “I’ve waited a long time for this chance and now I’m excited to get out on the field.”