East Xtra: Valley grad Zalewski adapts on the run

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Last season, Zarley Zalewski owned the WPIAL.

As a senior shortstop at Valley High School, Zalewski batted .574 with 8 home runs, 36 RBIs, a .693 on-base percentage and a 1.222 slugging percentage.

That, however, was high school.

Making the transition to NCAA Division I baseball, especially at Kent State, was bound to take some time. The Golden Flashes are fresh off a trip to the College World Series, have won four Mid-American Conference titles in a row and finished the season last year ranked No. 6 in the country.

Zalewski's transition lasted for one at-bat.

After sitting out the first game of the season, Zalewski began his collegiate career Feb. 15 against North Carolina Wilmington in Kent State's second game and went 4 for 5 with a double. The Golden Flashes lost the game, 7-6, in 10 innings, but it was an impressive start for a freshman.

"I was nervous when I went up to the plate for my first at-bat and as a result I struck out looking," he said. "I was really nervous. I went up to the plate after that and I just turned it on I guess. I got four hits, I felt pretty good. Not a bad start."

Though the transition from high school to college appeared seamless, it was anything but, Zalewski said.

"Coming straight out of high school into the fall and facing the pitchers we have, it was a tough transition," he said. "I struggled in the fall when I first got up here. Then I got acclimated to hitting and now I'm hitting just fine.

"I feel pretty comfortable that I'm going to go up to the plate and get my job done."

His early outburst at the plate earned him a starting job and Zalewski, a switch-hitter who throws right-handed, made 19 consecutive starts, lifting his batting average to as high as .300. He opened the season at third base, moved to first base for a stretch and is now back at third.

Zalewski has started 36 of the 41 games he has played in this season and is currently batting .268 (34 of 127) with nine multiple-hit games including a 3-for-5 effort against Northern Illinois, two home runs and is fifth on the team in slugging percentage at .339.

Despite playing third base, a position he has seldom played before this season, and first base for the first time, he has committed just four errors.

"Zarley is really athletic," said Kent State coach Scott Stricklin. "The things that he needs to improve on are his quickness, his lateral movement, but he's aggressive and as a hitter you have to be that. That's what has helped him have success this year -- he has been aggressive at the plate and he's ready to hit when he gets into the batter's box."

And he's also ready to be hit.

Zalewski ranks among the team leaders in another dubious category ... times hit by a pitch. This New Kensington native has been plunked five times already.

"Coach told us not to move out of the way of the ball if it comes in to you, so I just take them," he said, laughing. "I just get on base to help the team. It hurts at first but then it wears off."

What was as difficult as getting hit by a 90 mph fastball was his decision to even go to Kent State. Zalewski was drafted in the 40th round in the first-year player draft by the Pirates last year, giving him an opportunity to turn professional right out of high school.

"[The decision] was real hard," he said. "I thought about it because that's what I've always wanted to do is go play in the pros. To come here and get an education and play ball here, it was a good decision. They played in the College World Series.

"Sometimes I thought I could have [turned pro] but now that I decided to come here, I'm happy with my decision. All in all, I'm not too upset. I really enjoy playing here, playing for the coaches and this program."

The Golden Flashes stand 27-21 overall, 14-7 in the MAC, heading into Friday's game at Western Michigan. Once Kent State's season ends, Zalewski will be competing in the Prospect League for the Butler BlueSox this summer at Pullman Park in Butler.

"Zarley is a hard-worker and he has the physical tools," Stricklin said. "He is 6 feet 3, 210. When you mix that in with some hard work and some pretty good athletic ability, I think that you can envision him getting better and better over the next couple of years and being a guy who can move on to the next level."

Maybe even fulfill that dream of turning professional.


Rick Davis: rdavis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3789.


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