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Kolbach Finds His Way Back Just In Time for Mater Dei

Baseball: Monarch pitcher struggled until he refined his motion.


SANTA ANA — Mater Dei left-hander Mike Kolbach reached a milestone last Wednesday, when he picked up career victory No. 25 in the Monarchs' 5-3 win over Trabuco Hills. He broke the school record for wins (24) established by Tony Pena from 1987-89.

But the real reason for celebration, as far as Kolbach was concerned, happened a couple of weeks earlier. That's when Kolbach, 18, rediscovered his touch on the mound.

At the start of this season, Kolbach changed his pitching motion from a three-quarters delivery to straight over the top as advised by a private pitching coach. Throwing across his body, Kolbach was told, caused the ball to move and swerve and thus not move at its greatest possible speed. Throwing with a straighter motion, the coach said, should boost his fastball beyond the mid-80-mph range, where it normally tops out.

Nice theory. Bad execution.

The new motion straightened Kolbach's pitches but also reduced their speed.

By April 5 the difference was statistically noticeable: In his first 24 2/3 innings, he had given up 26 hits--nearly 40% of last season's total in 74 innings--when he was 10-1 for Mater Dei. He had walked six, struck out 23, given up eight earned runs and his overall record was floundering at 2-2.

"I didn't practice [the new motion] enough over the summer," Kolbach said, "and when the season started, it still felt awkward."

Mater Dei Coach Bob Ickes makes it a point not to contradict private instruction his players receive, but if the Monarchs were going to win a sixth consecutive South Coast League championship and contend in the Southern Section Division I playoffs, he needed Kolbach to be at his best.

"He used to cross his body, which is wrong, but when you're successful your body adjusts," Ickes said. "We [the coaches] didn't want to take him back there, but he went back to the old style on his own."

The results speak for themselves. Since April 5, Kolbach has won his last four decisions. In a span of 28 innings, he has given up 25 hits, walked four, struck out 28 and given up seven earned runs.

He's back. And the sighs of relief could be heard all the way to the University of Texas, where he earned a scholarship to play baseball under Coach Augie Garrido, former coach at Cal State Fullerton.

"I wasn't worried I wouldn't get it back. I always had confidence," Kolbach said. "But until this happened, I can't remember a time where I was struggling with the game. But everybody has to go through that sometime."

Baseball has come naturally to Kolbach. By the time he got to Mater Dei in 1993, he had already distinguished himself by being named MVP of the AABC Sandy Koufax World Series in Spring, Tex.

"When he came to our school, he had already played the game at a high level," Ickes said. "He had a game sense other kids didn't have entering high school. The only thing we worked on here was getting him to set up hitters better."

In three varsity seasons at Mater Dei, Kolbach, who also plays first base, has excelled on the mound and at the plate. Last year, he batted .443 with eight home runs and 38 runs batted in, earning The Times Orange County second-team honors. This season, he is batting .429 with five home runs and 15 RBIs.

When he gets to Texas this fall, Kolbach will have a special acquaintance waiting for him--former Dodger pitcher and Texas pitching coach Burt Hooten.

When Kolbach' mother, Karen, was giving birth to her only child in Fullerton's St. Jude Hospital, her roommate was Hooten's wife, Ginger. The Hootens' daughter, Lane, was born about six hours after Kolbach.

While the husbands were in the waiting room, Hooten gave Kolbach's father, Bob, a baseball with the inscription: "Mike, best wishes in life, Burt Hooten."

"We still have that ball," Bob said.

When contacted by phone in Lincoln, Neb., where the Longhorns were preparing for a weekend series with the Cornhuskers, Hooten chuckled when asked about the story. "It's true, but [the Kolbachs] remember it better than I do," he said.

Hooten said he was not heavily involved in recruiting Kolbach, but is interested seeing him play.

"I know Coach [Augie] Garrido was looking at him more as a hitter than a pitcher, but we want to see him as a pitcher," Hooten said. "You want to see anybody who's had some success at the position."

But college is still a ways off. Right now, Kolbach wants to see Mater Dei end its section title drought in baseball. The Monarchs haven't won a Division I championship since 1980.

"The football and basketball teams have won [section] titles this year," Kolbach said. "They put a lot of emphasis on them. But it's harder in baseball.

"Still, I think we have a good shot. I haven't seen any one dominant team, including us. But we have been consistent; we've done what we had to do."

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