March 15, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – “Play Ball!” is a familiar refrain before a baseball game. Matt Kirkwood, however, will tell you that it’s easier said than done.
Kirkwood is finally back on the field this season as a Marshall senior. He’s the Thundering Herd’s starting catcher – which is what he was at Cleveland State until the Vikings dropped the program following the 2011 season.
Kirkwood, of New Castle, Pa., searched for a new baseball home and chose Marshall … but when he arrived on campus in August 2011, he was wearing a cast on his right wrist.
He had fractured the wrist during a summer league game in the Pittsburgh area when he rounded third on a rainy diamond and slipped. He suffered a broken scaphoid bone (between the hand and forearm on the thumb side of the wrist) and wore a cast for eight weeks.
That was just the first time.
“It was bothering me and I got it checked out and it was broken again,” Kirkwood said. “I thought it was healed. I got here and I figured I’d get a cortisone shot, but it was X-rayed and they said I needed immediate surgery. The doctor told me later if I hadn’t had surgery, I would have lost the use of that bone in my hand.”
All that’s history as Kirkwood and the Herd (7-7) open the home season this weekend at Epling Field in Beckley, followed by a date at Appalachian Power Park. Marshall plays a four-game series starting with a Friday doubleheader in Beckley against Central Michigan (6-9), then faces West Virginia (7-9) on Tuesday night in Charleston – the schools’ first in-state meeting in 15 seasons.
Kirkwood would have played his senior season last spring, but he took a medical redshirt at MU Coach Jeff Waggoner’s suggestion. It ended up being “the best thing for me,” the 5-foot-11 catcher said.
“It was a big year for me,” said Kirkwood, who starred for two junior college seasons at Shelton State (Ala.) CC and played in a JUCO World Series before heading to Cleveland State. “I got to stay in the bullpen, warm guys up, learn all the pitchers, what they like to throw, where they like to set up, talk to (pitching) Coach (Joe) Renner about what kind of movement they had.
“I had a chance to learn the system, got familiar with that. It helped me get to know everybody and they got to know me. That’s a big part of it.”
Kirkwood has started all 14 games for the Herd this season and is hitting .280 with two doubles and four RBIs. The business management major said another plus in sitting out to completely recover last season was his chance to work on his own off the field.
“I got with the strength coaches and did a lot,” Kirkwood said. “I didn’t travel (to road games) after third weekend, so I had plenty of time. I got my legs in shape, which for a catcher is really important. I learned their system, what they like me to do, when they like to do it. But learning the pitchers was the biggest thing.”
The Herd lost three pitchers from 2012 who worked in the minors last season, including draft picks Mike Mason (Rockies) and Joe Church (Padres). Jesse Fernandez signed as a free agent with Baltimore. However, Kirkwood said a young 2013 staff led by ace Aaron Blair – who dominated last summer in the Cape Cod League -- is stronger top to bottom because of bullpen depth.
The senior catcher said he’s just glad to be back behind the plate.
“When it ended at Cleveland State I was looking for a couple of schools,” Kirkwood said. “Coach Waggoner left me a voicemail. I came down here and liked his attitude about winning, and Conference USA was a good conference for baseball … It helped that they’ve had a good record on getting guys into the pros, too.”
Kirkwood laughed when asked how it is that he ended up going from one program that played its home games 25 miles from campus (in Avon, Ohio) to one that plays at parks either 52 or 110 miles away.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Bad luck, I guess, but I’m lucky to be here.
“I came down here and my hand is in a cast and I thought, ‘This might be it.’ I was grateful the coaches stuck with me and gave me a chance to play.
“Going on the road all the time, it’s something we take … what I’m trying to say … we take it like nothing is given to us. If we take that attitude onto the field to play, it should be an advantage for us. We need to use it to help us, give us an edge.
“We’re playing better the last six games. The younger guys have learned and are buying in to what we do and what’s needed. We’ve played with that attitude the last six games (including four straight wins at Northern Kentucky last weekend). That’s why we’ve been successful. We can have a good season.”