by Daniel Malone, Special to the Maroon Musket
AMHERST, Mass. – A month into his new career as collegiate baseball player, UMass outfielder Kellen Pagel is settling into his new surroundings and new identity. He’s turned in his shoulder pads, helmet and No. 10 uniform for a bat, glove and No. 30 button-up baseball jersey.
By now, the story behind Pagel’s departure from the football team is well known, but readjusting to life on the diamond having not played since high school is something the former Minutemen quarterback is still trying to get a hold on.
“After four years, (I’m) a little rusty,” said Pagel after an 0-for-5, three strikeout performance in the UMass’ 7-6 loss to NJIT on Saturday. “Just up at the plate, I’m not quite seeing the ball as well as I would like to be. Just a few more at bats, really, is what I feel I need.”
UMass coach Mike Stone likes Pagel on his roster because he’s a big, fast player with athletic bloodlines. Pagel’s father Mike played 12 years in the NFL, and his uncle Karl spent time with the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians in the 1970s and ’80s. He has talent and shows it in flashes.
But Pagel’s transition at the plate has been rocky. Through six games, including four starts, he has one hit, three walks and six strikeouts in 15 at bats. He’s also scored a run and stolen two bases.
Though he garnered some attention coming out of high school as a potential baseball recruit, Pagel knew his time away from the diamond would make getting back into the sport tricky.
“Definitely at the college level I know the pitchers are all very good,” he said. “And after four years of not seeing a live pitch it makes things a little bit harder. I pretty much knew coming in that was going to be the thing that would take the most time.”
To help work out the kinks in his swing, Pagel said he’s put in extra work in batting cages and on the hitting tee. But until he learns to recognize college pitches — and he admits getting work against living pitching between games is difficult — he’ll likely continue to struggle at the plate.
Where he has looked like a natural, however, is in the field. Making three starts in center field and one in right, Pagel’s impressive speed has helped him track down fly balls in the gap and cut off would-be doubles. By just watching him on defense, it’s unlikely you’d peg him as someone who is just getting back into the game.
“I feel good in the field, running around, seeing the ball, catching it and everything,” he said. “That transition has been a little bit easier for me. (I’m) seeing the ball pretty well and just giving it all my effort, just running as fast as I can to get underneath of it. So, I feel like that’s going pretty well for me.”
In UMass’ series opener against NJIT on Friday, Pagel made an especially impressive diving catch in the outfield that was overturned because of a balk. Though the catch didn’t count, it demonstrated the type of player he can be when he gets up to speed.
Slowly, Pagel is molding himself back into a baseball player. And he certainly looks the part. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, Pagel is one of the more imposing, athletic figures on the field.
But it takes more than natural athleticism to excel in baseball. Anyone who saw Michael Jordan flail at minor league off-speed pitches can tell you as much.
Only a junior and with a wealth of raw talent, Pagel is putting in the work to make the most of his time in baseball.
“Like I said, I’m just a little bit rusty,” he said. “But every chance that I get I feel more and more comfortable.”
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