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Ziomek invited to Tigers’ camp

  • For The Recorder/Jerrey RobertsLocal baseball enthusiasts will recognize Kevin Ziomek’s proud grandfather Stan Ziomek, so instrumental to Amherst’s stellar youth baseball programs.

  • Connecticut Tigers pitcher Kevin Ziomek relaxes in the dug out before his game against Vermont Friday at Dodd Memorial Stadium in Norwich.JERREY ROBERTS

  • Connecticut Tigers pitcher Kevin Ziomek warms up before his game against Vermont during the 2013 season at Dodd Memorial Stadium in Norwich.For The Recorder/Jerrey Roberts

  • For The Recorder/Jerrey RobertsConnecticut Tigers pitcher Kevin Ziomek, right, signs an autograph for a young fan as his catcher, Chris Taladay, does the same in 2013 at Dodd Memorial Stadium in Norwich.

  • Connecticut Tigers pitcher Kevin Ziomek leaves the dug out to warm up before his game against Vermont Friday at Dodd Memorial Stadium in Norwich.JERREY ROBERTS

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTOAmherst native Kevin Ziomek, who pitched for the Connecticut Tigers last season, will head to Detroit Tigers minicamp this weekend.

  • For The Recorder/Jerrey RobertsConnecticut Tigers pitcher Kevin Ziomek warms up before a 2013 game against Vermont Friday at Dodd Memorial Stadium in Norwich.



For The Recorder
Tuesday, March 01, 2016
*Archive Article*
Kevin Ziomek was somewhere in Tennessee.

He had left Nashville Thursday morning, embarking on a 10-hour drive. With his phone plugged in and music playing, he was leaving the snow-covered Music City for the Sunshine State.

His Florida destination wasn’t the beach or golf course. It was Lakeland, the Detroit Tigers’ spring-training home. The left-handed Amherst native got the phone call last month and was headed to his first major-league spring camp.

First up, the drive.

“I pretty much make it every year so I’m getting used to it,” he said. “It’s a long day but it’s good to get it over with in one day. I don’t mind. I just blast some music, make some phone calls to some friends, catch up with everybody. It ends up being all right.”

Ziomek was making the 700-mile trip solo. Riding in the comfort of his BMW, he departed a week before pitchers and catchers were due to report. His only planned stops along the way were for food and to stretch out his lanky 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame.

Interstate 75 is not what you’d call scenic.

“It’s OK. It’s not the worst,” the 23-year-old pitcher said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a nice drive, but when you are driving that long it can’t be that great.”

Like most road trips it’s all about the destination. Ziomek will report Thursday for his fourth season in the Tigers organization.

“I just want to get down there,” he said. “Most guys get down there a few days early and there’s some guys down there already. I just want to get down there, obviously, first big-league camp. I wanted to kind of get my feet wet, get acclimated and make sure I was ready when report day came around.”

2015 roller coaster

Last season was up-and-down for Ziomek, despite leading the Advanced-A Florida State League in strikeouts with 143.

“The best advice that I’ve heard is not getting too high when you are doing well and not to get too low when you’re not doing your best. Just try and keep an even keel as far as you can throughout the season,” Ziomek said. “Obviously there are going to be times when you’re struggling. Probably in baseball, more than any other sport, there’s going to be slumps, and they could last weeks or months. It happens. You may have a year where you don’t feel great.”

May was a challenging month. In four out of six starts, Ziomek allowed at least four earned runs. In his last three starts, he allowed a combined 15 earned runs on 21 hits over 142/ 3 innings. His ERA entering June was 4.95.

“Last year I had some low points, for sure, where I didn’t feel great at all. But the biggest thing I’ve heard from coaches and guys around me is don’t get too down on yourself because it’s all part of it,” Ziomek said. “I feel I came back from it and finished really strong at the end of the year and that was something I try not to get too high on either. It doesn’t mean I’m invincible. I still have plenty of work to do.”

Ziomek peaked in August through the end of the season and it likely led to his big-league camp phone call. He allowed one run or less in six of seven starts, surrendering zero runs on five hits over 15 innings in his first two starts combined. In three starts, he allowed two hits and in two starts he allowed three.

To close the year, he struck out 43 and walked nine.

“I just didn’t feel great at the beginning of the year for one reason or another,” Ziomek said. “I stuck with it and worked on a lot stuff and just tried to use it as an opportunity to grow. I worked on my command a lot. That was a big thing for me — command my fastball.”

Ziomek finished 9-11 with a 3.43 earned-run average. He allowed 142 hits and walked 34 over 1542/ 3 innings.

“By the end of the year I felt confident and mentally I was as strong as I ever been,” he said. “It was cool to see that transformation. I wasn’t my best early in the year but I was able to figure it out at the end of the year and it ended up being a good year for me.”

Offseason

Ziomek took a week or so off when the season ended in early September, then got right into his offseason training. While he rested his arm after increasing his workload for the third straight season, he spent most of his time gaining flexibility and building strength.

“Guys need to work a lot on flexibility — mobility they call it. It’s your range-of-motion stuff, just things to keep your body healthy,” he said. “Instead of just strengthening your arm, you have to strengthen all the muscle around it, all the muscles around your shoulder and elbow.”

Ziomek makes his home in Nashville to be closer to his alma mater Vanderbilt. Many former Commodores, including new Red Sox ace and Murfreesboro native David Price, reside in the area and use the facilities in the offseason.

Ziomek’s roommates are also Vanderbilt products: Tampa Bay Rays catcher Curt Casali, who is from Connecticut, and Washington Nationals right-hander Taylor Hill. Ziomek has taken full advantage of being around players with major league experience.

“Just to hear their experiences and get some advice on how to carry yourself, how to go into camp with a good attitude,” Ziomek said. “I’m excited. I’m lucky that training there in Nashville has giving me a lot of resources to go to.”

Spring training

Despite his strong finish, Ziomek wasn’t preparing for major-league camp.

The phone call “was really exciting. I wasn’t sure it was coming,” he said. “It was something that, a guy like me, I know in the back of my mind that there was a chance. But you can’t expect it because you don’t want to be let down. I think I’d rather have a pleasant surprise than a letdown. It was pretty cool to hear that, and I was fired up.”

Ziomek doesn’t expect to be overwhelmed when he reports. He said he already knows many of the players. Meanwhile, he is familiar with the setting, having played in Lakeland last year. The only difference is that Ziomek could be facing future Hall-of-Famer Miguel Cabrera in batting practice, or throwing a bullpen session next to Cy Young winner Justin Verlander. (Ziomek has been a teammate with Verlander’s brother, Ben, in all three stops in the minors.)

“It’s hard not to be excited about it and be around those guys, but at the same time I think you have to carry yourself like you fit in and that you are going to be one of those guys,” Ziomek said. “Obviously I’m excited about all that, but at the same time feel like I belong. It’s not like I’m star-struck or it’s not like I’m just lucky to be there. I feel like I worked really hard the last few years. I put up some great numbers and feel like I do belong and am excited about it. At the same time, I’m going to show respect to veterans and older guys who have been there. But I feel like I’m ready to make an impact sooner rather than later.”

Ziomek’s next minor-league stop is a mystery. An invitation to camp doesn’t guarantee a spot on the major league roster. The next rung on the minor-league ladder would put Ziomek in Pennsylvania playing for the Double-A Erie SeaWolves of the Eastern League. If he plays there, he could make an appearance against the Hartford Yard Goats in Connecticut (June 24-26).

If he reaches Triple-A, he would pitch in Ohio for the Toledo Mud Hens of the International League. That could bring him through Rhode Island for a series against the Pawtucket Red Sox (June 6-9).

Of course, if he gets another phone call, he could be pitching with the Tigers at Fenway Park (July 25-27). He wouldn’t have to drive on that trip. That one requires a plane.

“It’s always nice pitching close to home,” Ziomek said. “I would hope that I have a good turnout from friends and I know my family already has been asking about my schedule. ... I do miss those New England summers for sure.”