Hometown Report: Ex-Stanislaus State star Kuntz holds court with Kansas City Royals

08/16/2014 3:20 PM

08/16/2014 11:06 PM

Longtime baseball fans may have noticed a familiar face coaching first base for the Kansas City Royals.

His name is Rusty Kuntz, and he’s one of the best ballplayers in the history of Cal State Stanislaus. He’s a member of the Stanislaus Hall of Fame for his role in the Warriors’ NCAA Division III titles in 1976 and ’77.

Kuntz, 59, advanced from Turlock to a career as a designated hitter and outfielder for the Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers between 1979 and ’85. In the decisive fifth game of the 1984 World Series, his shallow fly ball became a sacrifice fly that resulted in the winning run for the Tigers.

Since then, Kuntz – raised in Orange, Wichita, Kan., and Paso Robles – has burnished his reputation as one of baseball’s most respected bench coaches. He’s worked with the Houston Astros, Seattle Mariners, Florida Marlins, Atlanta Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates and the Royals.

Though he’s the Royals’ baserunning and outfielders coach, Kuntz plays a bigger-than-you-might-expect role as first-base coach.

He’s enjoyed an up-close view of the Royals’ recent run that has carried them to the top of the American League Central. Local fans have witnessed Kansas City’s streak firsthand. The Royals won five of seven over the A.L. West-leading A’s and swept a three-game series from the Giants over the last two weeks.

And Kuntz hasn’t exactly stood idle near first base.

In their 7-4 victory over the Giants last Sunday, the Royals stole seven bases, the most against the Giants since 2009. Kuntz was credited for the team taking full advantage of Giants starter Tim Lincecum, who often doesn’t devote much attention to men on base.

“We did a good job of pressuring him all day on the basepaths,” Royals star Alex Gordon said. “Rusty did a good job of letting us know that he’s slow to the plate and we could maybe steal some bases, and that’s what (Alcides) Escobar, (Jarrod) Dyson and (Nori) Aoki did.”

It’s been an eventful season for Kuntz. He underwent surgery in April for a fractured wrist after he was struck by a line drive off the bat of Salvador Perez during batting practice in Cleveland. Kuntz stood in shallow center field and prepared to hit fungoes to the outfield. When he reached to pick up his bag of baseballs, he felt something strike his arm.

“I turned around and I looked – I thought somebody hit me with a baseball bat,” Kuntz told the Kansas City Star. “It was like, ‘Oh my God. What the hell?’ And that was the first time I’ve ever broken a bone.”

In better news, Kuntz no doubt has admired the progress of his son Kevin, an infielder for the Lexington (Ky.) Legends, the Royals’ Class-A team.

All things said, Kuntz has turned baseball into his career. His Stanislaus coach, Jim Bowen, one of the valley’s most passionate baseball men who died in 2009, would approve.

Notes – The Arizona Diamondbacks’ exhausted bullpen needed a fresh arm Thursday night, so it wasn’t surprising that Denair-raised right-hander Bradin Hagens was tossed into the fire on his first day in a big-league uniform. Sure enough, manager Kirk Gibson summoned Hagins in the ninth inning of a close game in Miami. Hagens used a double play to escape that jam, but he yielded a double to Marcell Ozuna in the 10th to lose 5-4. “I still have to be ready,” Hagens said afterward. “It was nice to get in and have a chance to help the team get a win; just unfortunate that it didn’t happen.” Hagens won’t soon forget 2014. In the last two weeks, he surged up the Diamondbacks’ farm system – from Double-A Mobile to Triple-A Reno and the big-league club. He gained important recognition when he was named the organization’s Player of the Month in May (3-0, 2.48 ERA in five starts at Mobile). Hagins, born in Modesto, graduated from Pitman High School one year after another noteworthy Pitman alum – 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. A professional career beckoned after Hagens pitched for Merced College. ... Sierra High graduate Dakota Conners recently received a Gold Glove Award from the American Baseball Coaches Association and Rawlings. Only nine such awards are given each year. Conners, an infielder and two-time All-Valley Oak League selection, had 100 chances with 36 putouts, 61 assists and three errors and participated in 13 double plays. ... Former Modesto Christian and Fresno State star Isaiah Burse, a Denver free-agent signee, returned two kickoffs and one punt last week during the Broncos’ 21-16 preseason win over Seattle.

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