Lee: Catcher Turned Pitcher


April 9, 2010

IOWA CITY, IA – – With Iowa leading by two runs in the bottom of the ninth at Kansas earlier this season, closer Kevin Lee was in a jam. Runners were on second and third base and the batter had worked a 3-2 count. Over 1,000 Jayhawk fans were on their feet anticipating a rally to tie the game. Hawkeye catcher Tyson Blaser signaled for a slider and Lee spotted the pitch on the outer half of the plate to strike the batter out looking and give the Hawkeyes a victory over a nationally-ranked opponent. Not bad for a closer, who three years ago was recruited as a catcher.

Lee, who did pitch some in high school, was recruited to the University of Iowa as a catcher, but has since made the full-time transition to pitcher. According to Head Coach Jack Dahm, he has made tremendous strides since he made the conversion.

“We saw him behind the plate at our camp and he showed us very good arm strength,” said Dahm. “He’s such a tall guy that once he got on campus it was tough for him to catch.”

Lee, who stands 6-foot-5, said that his role changed his rookie campaign after throwing a few bullpen sessions. Once the decision was made to convert him to a pitcher, Lee knew what he wanted his role to be on the team.

“I always wanted to be in that closer role because I did a little of that in high school,” said Lee. “As soon as I started pitching on a more permanent basis, that’s what I was looking for.”

In preparation for earning the role of closer for his junior year, Lee needed to work on his secondary pitches during summer ball. Lee played for the Quincy Gems last summer and boasted a league-high 10 saves, including earning the save in the championship game.

“I needed to work on my development of my secondary pitches,” said Lee. “After being a catcher for most of my life, I didn’t know much about pitching. I only worked on my fastball. I kind of had a loopy curve ball that didn’t do much. The change up and splitter weren’t too good either, so last summer I worked on a curveball and now a slider, which I hope it continually gets better.”

Dahm and pitching coach Chris Maliszewski marvel at Lee’s strong fastball and slider and applaud his work on his secondary pitches. Both coaches agreed that Lee reminds them of former Hawkeye standout, Tim Gudex, who lettered at Iowa in 2002, 04-06.

“He’s a great competitor,” said Dahm. “He’s one of the better competitors we’ve had here in a long time.”

“He understands who he is and what he needs to do to be successful,” said Maliszewski. “His mental approach is what separates him from most guys.”

The native of Oak Lawn, Ill., has appeared in eight games so far this season posting four saves, which ties three others for tops in the Big Ten. Last weekend at Michigan State, Lee entered the game in a non-save situation. Despite striking out two batters, he did allow two runs in one inning of work against the most explosive team in the league. Lee acknowledges non-save situations are a work in progress for him.

“I need to improve on non-save situations,” admitted Lee. “I haven’t been that good in those situations so far. I need to improve in that area. I have to compete at all times, not just save situations.”

Coach Maliszewski says that off the field Lee is a laid back guy with dry humor whose nickname is “Spaceman”. But don’t let the nickname fool you.

“He’s pretty intense when the situation calls for it. He’s driven and does all his work. Everything he does is for the betterment or our program.”

Lee said the nickname originated his freshman season. It was discovered that he is related to Bill Lee, a former Red Sox pitcher whose nickname was “Spaceman”.

“I guess I’m not too much of a mainstream kid,” said Lee. “I’m different in a lot of areas of my life. I enjoy old movies and music, primarily progressive and classic rock. I guess a lot of people wouldn’t consider that `normal’. My parents and aunts and uncles influenced me in that area. I’m big into Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. I have a lot of old rock t-shirts that a lot of the guys don’t know who they are.”

Back on the field, Lee understands the importance to having a good season and earning a trip to the Big Ten Tournament in May.

“Making the tournament is of the utmost importance,” said Lee. “After going through my first two years and not making the tournament, it hurts. It’s not fun losing. We had a great start to the conference season last Friday and unfortunately we lost the next two, but we’re capable of having a good season and making the tournament. Making the Big ten Tournament would be huge because we have the talent and are capable.”

Maliszewski stated that since Lee has been inserted in the role of closer, he’s flourished and has the confidence to go out there and fulfill his role. Maliszewski believes having a strong closer is vital to a team’s success.

“Any time you have a guy that you trust to get the last three outs plays a crucial role to the outcome of the game,” Maliszewski said. “When he is in the game, his teammates feel good about what’s happening. They know Kevin’s going to attack, throw strikes and get plays to be made. It helps the moral, it helps the overall ability to close games when you have a closer who goes out there and can get it done.”

Lee and the Hawkeyes continue their quest to make the Big Ten Tournament when they host their first Big Ten series this weekend, against Illinois. The three-game series starts Friday (6 p.m.) and continues Saturday (1 p.m.) and Sunday (1 p.m.). This weekend will be Illinois’ first trip to Duane Banks Field in three years.