To say Ryan Kulik was at the crossroads of his baseball career would be incorrect.
As a 28-year-old surgically repaired former Triple-A left-hander playing in a southern New Jersey recreational men’s league, that critical career intersection was traversed thousands of minor-league bus miles earlier.
But Kulik still wanted to pitch, still wanted to wear a jersey. Because as long as he had a jersey, his dream of pitching in the majors was alive.
Kulik got the call from the Colorado Rockies two weeks ago and Monday afternoon picked up his second win in two starts as the Modesto Nuts beat Stockton 11-4 at John Thurman Field.
“When Colorado signed me and told me I was coming here, I wasn’t happy,” said Kulik, who hoped to be assigned to a higher level. “But I’m getting another shot at playing affiliated ball, and I couldn’t be happier than to be here right now.”
Kulik’s professional journey began in 2008, when he was drafted in the eighth round by St. Louis out of Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. By the end of his first full pro season, he was in Double A and in 2010 reached Memphis – the last minor-league stop before St. Louis.
He was back with Double-A Springfield to open the 2011 season and injured his elbow so badly it required surgery. He didn’t pitch at all in 2012 – Kulik’s first visit to the crossroads.
“I rehabbed the whole year not knowing if I ever was going to play again, just hoping that someone would take a shot on me,” Kulik said. “I had a couple of workouts, including one with the Rockies, and they went well. But the teams were nervous about signing me because of my arm.”
He ended up pitching with the independent Camden RiverSharks, 15 miles from his hometown of Marlton, N.J., and right across the Delaware River from the major-league Philadelphia Phillies. Kulik’s season was strong enough to warrant a minor-league contract offer from the Rockies.
But in the final days of March, with rosters just about set, Colorado released Kulik. And the news came so late in spring training that the RiverSharks’ roster didn’t have an opening, not even for a hometown boy.
“I went home not knowing if I still wanted to play,” Kulik said. “I talked to my wife (Kristina, a former college softball player and Phillies ball girl), and we decided that because I had done so well in spring training, it wasn’t time to give it up.
“So I was pitching in a men’s league, where my older brother was the catcher. Camden called me on April 30 and said they wanted to sign me again. I made three starts there, and now I’m here.”
The Rockies gave specific reasons for sending him to Modesto. The Nuts’ starting rotation was in disarray through April, so they sent Kulik westward to not only settle the staff but provide veteran leadership.
“Something needed to be done, and the organization knew that,” Nuts manager Don Sneddon said. “We needed to be on somewhat of a level playing field with the rest of the teams.”
The Nuts are 6-2 since Kulik arrived – their best eight-game stretch this season. In addition, Modesto starters have gone eight consecutive games pitching five or more innings and allowing three or fewer runs.
“We didn’t have that equation at all at the beginning, and these guys aren’t blowing people away but they are good pitchers who keep us in ballgames and get outs when they need to,” Sneddon said.
Kulik (2-0, 3.75 ERA) went five innings and threw 93 pitches on an afternoon when the scoreboard thermometer hit 95 degrees. He allowed three runs and 10 hits but pitched out of constant trouble.
Relievers Nate Striz and Shane Broyles took over from there as the Nuts capped a 5-2 homestand by winning only their third series of the season.
“It seems like the pitchers are doing well since I’ve been here,” Kulik said. “I don’t know if that’s a coincidence or what, but we’re playing really good baseball right now.”
Modesto never trailed against the Ports and blew open a close game by taking a 9-4 lead with a five-run sixth, capped by consecutive two-out RBI hits by Juan Ciriaco, Kyle Von Tungeln, Chris O’Dowd and Pat Valaika.
O’Dowd and Matt Wessinger had three hits apiece as the Nuts blasted three Ports pitchers for 16 hits.
That kind of hitting will go a long way toward winning games. But it all starts with consistent starting pitching.
“You never give up, and it looked like his career might have been over,” Sneddon said. “This is a second chance to see that he can do things. We’ll see how the season goes, but so far I really like what I’ve seen.”