Here is a look at the top pitching, offensive and defensive tools from the Staten Island Yankees as…
Chris Kunda: An Undervalued Winner
"I think the adjustment to the wood bat has made a difference," said Kunda, who has been on a tear of late. "First couple weeks I struggled trying to make the transition from aluminum. Now, we've got quite a few games under our belts and things have started to come around. I'm swinging the bat more comfortably and confidently."
Chris Kunda, the Yankees 19th round selection, was a .251 hitter in his first three seasons at the Oregon State University but saw his average skyrocket to .294 in his senior season. He attributed the breakthrough to increased work and repetitions in the off-season.
"That was the first summer that I had played baseball in however many years," he explained. "I worked out a lot and it just happened to pay dividends."
He spent extensive time in the batting cages, worked on hitting drills and hit off a tee. He also believes that seeing a lot of live pitching during the summer made him better prepared for the season.
Kunda, though, says that nothing changed in his hitting style, only his work ethic. The increased practice time translated to more playing time which led to the success.
"Once I got to playing more regularly, that's what gave me the confidence to go up there and put up a good at-bat each and every time," said Kunda, who has been taking swings since his parents bought him a toy bat as an infant.
It's a similar situation now as he's become one of the mainstays in the lineup at shortstop and is hitting .318 in August.
A natural second baseman, he has started 10 of the last 11 games - nine at shortstop - and his offensive numbers have improved.
He has also shown good discipline at the plate. Despite the low batting average, he has a .333 on-base percentage and has drawn 12 walks in 23 games thus far.
"A lot of that came from my mentality in college, our whole team mentality was to see a lot of pitches," he said. "Wait until you get one that you can handle and put a good swing on it. Personally, I like to work the count and see what the pitcher has to offer."
Of his approach in the batter's box, he said, "I'm definitely not a power hitter, by any means. But like every hitter, I like a fastball in the middle of the plate somewhere. My strength is staying up the middle and being able to take it the other way. I like to keep my swing level and smooth.
I'm trying to stay down in my legs and make sure my head's not moving and my front side's not coming off as the ball is coming. I'm trying to stay real quiet to the point of contact."
He said that although it might not reflect in his numbers, he thinks that he's become a much better hitter through his practice sessions with hitting coach Ty Hawkins which are geared on improving his pitch recognition and making him even more discerning at the plate.
"He just needs to get used to the pro game," said Hawkins. "He had success in college and I'm confident that he'll be successful here as well."
Still, the biggest asset he brings to the field is his protean ability and a willingness to move about and give of himself for the sake of the team. He has played third base before, in addition to shortstop and second base.
"It's nice to be able to have experience at [those] three positions in the infield and to know that if my name gets called at any of those spots, I can contribute defensively," he said.
Laudatory of his teammate's adaptability and defensive prowess was Mitch Hilligoss, a fellow switch-fielder, who most recently has been starting games at third base.
"I love that dude," he exclaimed. "He's got great hands and the versatility is big. With him being able to move around, it allows more guys to get in and play. It gives the coaches more options, too. Guys like that, every team needs and you love to have."
Kunda, who has made five errors this season, does admit to being more comfortable at second base and described his arm as "average at best" for the shortstop position.
"One thing that I have to work on that I didn't really expect is my defensive play at shortstop," he confessed. "I hadn't played there since high school and playing here at this level is a lot different than in high school. As the season goes on, I have to take a lot more ground ball work to get better at that position. I think naturally, I'll always be able to play second base, but the left side of the infield will take some work."
The Yankees, who pulled within a game of first place after their extra-inning victory over the Cyclones on Tuesday, are considered one of the elite teams and are poised to defend their New York-Penn League championship.
Kudna, whose ninth inning single, if not for a great throw from left fielder Dustin Martin, would've scored Francisco Cervelli for the game-winning hit, is no stranger to clutch situations, or championships. With Staten Island, the former Beaver has the rare opportunity to win two titles in the same year.
In the deciding game of this year's College World Series, on a play exemplifying of his style, he sacrificed a teammate to second base which preceded an RBI single. In a game that ended 3-2, the one run did matter and so did the bunt. Much like the player, the play was unheralded but invaluable.
"It was unbelievable, especially after the way we got beat in the first game. To come back and stick it out and end up winning it, it was special," Kunda said of Oregon State defeating UNC for the championship.
As for the celebration, he said, "The coaches allowed us to have a good time, but we had to hold back a little until we got back to Oregon because the bus to the plane left the next morning at 7:45. But we had a good time at the hotel and when we got back home…"
Asked if he has teased teammate Jonathan Hovis, who was the Tar Heels closer, he said emphatically, "Yes!"
"I haven't said too much, but every now and then I'll wear an Oregon State baseball shirt, just to remind him," he said with a chuckle.
"It's not too bad," said Hovis of the taunting. "He just brings it up every once in a while, and if I were him, I'd do it too."
"He's a great kid though," he continued. "We roomed together on our first trip to Aberdeen and I got know him."
Kunda said that Hovis does take solace in the fact he retired him both times they faced each other. "My last college at-bat, actually, it was him," he said. "He jammed me with a slider."
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