It all started with a simple lat strain for Kent State pitcher Tyler Skulina.
It was his senior year at Walsh Jesuit High School, and at that time, he was a recruit for the University of Virginia.
The pain wasn’t the worst part for him.
It was the way his body unconsciously overcompensated for the upper-back injury. His pitching mechanics went all out of whack, and his velocity was noticeably down.
He pitched through it, though, managing a successful season with the Warriors, going 6-0 to help lead Walsh to the state championship game.
Once healed, he was still missing 8 to 10 mph off his pitches.
“He went through a period of dead arm,” Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said. “He still had a good year, but it wasn’t like his junior year [in high school]. His junior year, he was throwing in the mid-90s, and he was projected to be a possible first-round pick [in the Major League Baseball draft].”
In baseball, the term “dead arm” is often used when a pitcher doesn’t have an injury but isn’t performing to his usual standards.
“When I saw Tyler his senior year, he was throwing 86, 87 mph when in his junior year he’d gotten up to 96 mph,” Stricklin said. “So it’s tough on a kid that young who’s still growing and maturing to mature so fast. There’s a lot of mileage on these young kids’ arms now a days. They’re pitching a lot, throwing in games and showcases, they’re throwing for scouts. And I think he got to a point where he might have thrown a little too much.”
The dead-arm period brought on plenty of frustration and even a little doubt. After spending just one semester at Virginia, the 6-foot-6, 225-pound Skulina headed back to Ohio and promptly transferred to Kent State. In addition to being a little home sick, Skulina, a right-hander, was betting that Golden Flashes longtime pitching coach Mike Birkbeck could help him find his old form.
“I was worried because my velocity was down,” Skulina said. “But when I got to Kent, I worked with coach Birkbeck for a long time and he helped me put everything back together. I knew if anybody could help me get back to where I was, it was going to be him.”
Because he transferred, he had to sit out a season.
“Tyler had a full year to get things going in the direction he needed and Mike Birkbeck was the perfect guy for him to be with,” Stricklin said. “[Birkbeck] was very patient with Tyler and worked with him. And now, Tyler’s in the best shape of his life and has flourished. I think he’s found a new love for the game that he may have lost at some point.”
He settled in as the No. 3 starter for the Flashes last season as a sophomore behind ace David Starn and No. 2 Ryan Bores.
“It started off a little tough at the beginning of the season as I was still working a little on my mechanics,” said Skulina, who ultimately tied for the team lead with 11 wins to go along with a 3.77 ERA in 18 starts. “I walked more guys early on than I would have liked, but throughout the season I kept working on timing and increasingly got better.”
He was on the mound in the College World Series when the Flashes were eliminated with a 4-1 loss to South Carolina. He allowed all four runs but struck out nine in 5⅔ innings, finishing the season with 107 strikeouts (second on the team) in 107⅓ innings (third on the team).
“I know after we beat Ohio University last year when shook hands after Game Three, coach [Joe] Carbone said Tyler was the best pitcher they’d seen all year,” Stricklin said. “And they’d seen David Starn and Ryan Bores, who’d beaten them. But it was Tyler Skulina who he said was the best guy they’d seen all year — and that was late in the season.
“Because he got better and better as we went (last season), he’s a big reason we had the success we did. Tyler was pitching in the three-hole and he was better than everyone else he was pitching against. When he pitched in Omaha in June, it might have been his best outing all year. He made one mistake all game in giving up (a two-run) home run [in the third inning] to South Carolina. But he was as good as you can be.”
Now in his second season with KSU, Skulina is the Flashes’ ace and ready to take his and the team’s success a step further as nationally ranked Kent State opens the season today with a doubleheader at UNC Wilmington against the host Seahawks and Virginia Tech.
“Tyler’s 6-foot-6 and has a great arm,” Stricklin said. “There’s a lot of potential just because he’s so physically gifted. But on top of that, he knows how to pitch. He can get the ball up in the mid-90’s with a major-league slider that he knows how to use.
“He had a great year for us last year. If he even makes a little bit of a jump, he has a chance to be an All-American and be a very high draft pick in June. He’s got the velocity back, he’s 100 percent and he’s the best he’s ever been right now.”
It hasn’t been easy for Skulina.
“It was hard not playing for a year, but it was something I needed to do,” he said. “It’s been a tough road getting to this point, but now it all seems worth it.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.