Because Kyle Ruehlman is a fast learner, Sinclair’s baseball team opens play Saturday night in the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II College World Series against tournament host Northern Oklahoma College in Enid, Oklahoma.
When he pitched at Milford High School outside Cincinnati, the 6-foot-5 right-hander said he drew interest from Miami University, Cincinnati, Xavier, Eastern Kentucky University and Ohio State.
He eventually signed with EKU.
But while he flashed real promise on the mound, he admitted he too often showed himself to be “young and dumb” when it came to his studies.
“There were times I felt I had other, more important priorities than my school work,” he said.
By the fall of his senior year, he said he had neither the test scores or grade point average to get into EKU or any of the other schools that had looked at him.
“I was heartbroken,” he said. “My goal all through high school had been to play (NCAA) D-I.”
When a summer league coach told him he could try the junior college route, he said he looked at him blankly:
“I’ll be honest, I had no idea what juco was. And when he mentioned Sinclair baseball, I had never even heard of it.”
He was introduced to Tartan Pride head coach Steve Dintaman and soon was offered a spot on the 2016-17 team. Although he’d been told of the program’s great success in recent years, he said he still didn’t get it:
“When I first came to Sinclair I basically thought it was just going to be like another two years of high school. But when I got on the team, I was surprised by the talent.
“In fact, I thought, ‘Oh there’s no way I can pitch here. They’ve got such a huge lineup of guys. There’s just so much talent.’
“But then freshman year some of our guys went down with injury and I thought, ‘OK, it’s my time to show what I got’…And I did.”
He was 3-1 in conference play, struck out 39 batters in 43 innings, walked only one and had an 1.67 earned run average. At season’s end, he was named the Ohio Community College Athletic Association Pitcher of the Year.
This season he had six conference starts and threw a complete game each time for a perfect 6-0 record. He had a 1.89 ERA in conference play and again was named the OCCAA Pitcher of the Year.
Last weekend as Sinclair (44-9) won the Region XII Tournament to make the 10-team College World Series for the second time in three years, he made the all-tournament team.
Saturday night he will start for the No. 5 seeded Tartan Pride against No. 4 NOC, a team with a 46-14 record that will be playing on its home field, David Allen Memorial Ballpark.
“That doesn’t faze me,” he said. “I like it when the crowd is against me. I’ll take the boos all day. It gives me a chance to prove what I’ve actually got and basically just stick it to them.”
He proved some things in the classroom as well at Sinclair. He has a 2.8 GPA and has signed to pitch next season for Gardner Webb University in Boiling Springs., N.C. The Runnin’ Bulldogs play in the Big South Conference.
As Sinclair went through its final workout the other morning at the Athletes in Action field in Xenia, Ruehlman admitted he learned all there is about the junior college experience.
“That’s the goal here,” said Dintaman. “You establish yourself as a college student and a college athlete. He had two big years for us and put himself in line to get a degree.
“On our team, he’s the guy. We give him the ball the first day of every single week.”
‘Comedian of the team’
Although he was unfamiliar with the Sinclair program at the start, Ruehlman soon settled into his two roles with the Pride:
Top pitcher and practical joker.
“He’s the comedian of the team,” Dintaman said. “He’s a goofy kid, always pulling pranks and being funny. He’s pretty witty. He does some voices, all kinds of stuff.
“His mom ate with us one time and said, ‘Oh yeah, he was always the class clown.”
Ruehlman said it’s his way of taking the pressure off and making him and others relax in the moment.
“But once the anthem plays and we head out onto the field, it’s like a light switch flipping,” he said. “Then I’m focused 100 percent.”
Dintaman called it “a Jekyll and Hyde kind of deal.”
“As funny as he is in the dugout, when he’s on the mound, he’s a totally different guy. He becomes a bulldog.”
Ruehlmnan said he’s an “old-time pitcher”.
“That’s how I pitch,” he said. “Today it’s all about velo (velocity.) You got to be able to hit 90-plus, even 95 miles per hour.
“I don’t worry about that. I pitch to contact and get guys to get themselves out. I want them to mess up. I got teammates behind me who can make the plays on them.”
In the Region XII opener against Macomb that worked perfectly. Ruehlman pitched seven scoreless innings and the Pride won. 3-2.
“Macomb was a good team,” he said. “They could hit everything, but our guys showed up and they made some crazy plays behind me.”
Dintaman brought Ruehlman back on two days rest to pitch the championship game against Kellogg, the No. 2 team in the nation, in the double-elimination tournament.,
“He gave us a scoreless first, then there was an error behind him,” Dintaman said. “He got two quick strikeouts after that, but then he gave up a home run.”
Ruehlman was candid in his reflection: “I threw a little drop down curve. It started behind the batter and though the bat doesn’t go vertical – it only goes horizontal – my ball went horizontal, too, and he met it pretty well.”
Although Dintaman hugged him and told him was finished after the third inning, an upcoming rain delay changed strategy. The bullpen replacement wasn’t ready and Dintaman asked Ruehlman to go back out.
He told him to take his time pitching until the reliever was ready to go or the storm arrived. Ruehlman didn’t complain, he did his job. Sinclair went on to win and Dintaman ended up with an even greater appreciation of him.
“Gardner Webb is getting a very good ballplayer,” he said.
Ruehlman said his scholarship will pay 50 percent of his college costs, so he and his family will have to come up with the rest.
As he did last year, he plans to work two jobs this summer.
That means he’ll be living back at home now with his two beloved Jack Russell terriers, a brother and sister named Nitro and Skittles.
“I’ve had them six or seven years,” he smiled. “There’s nothing I love more than coming in and seeing them all excited. And it’s great taking a little nap with them in your lap. They just love you. They don’t know what kind of day you had. They don’t know you just gave up a home run.”
Sometimes it pays to be a fast learner.
Sometimes ignorance – or at least canine tunnel vision – is bliss.