Sun. Jul 3rd, 2022

West Chester baseball has a lot to be proud of lately. Just over a year ago, they took home the Division II National Championship. A few days later, second baseman Joe Wendle was taken by the Indians in the sixth round of the first-year player draft. Now, another key component to last year’s championship run, starting pitcher Joe Gunkel, also is getting his shot in professional baseball.
 The 6-foot-6 junior from Hershey, Pa. was taken by the Red Sox in the 18th round, 533rd overall in the entry level draft this past June, making him the second WCU player in many years to continue his career at the professional level.
 He was informed of the news while in North Carolina, where he was playing for the Morehead City Marlins of the Coastal Plains League for the summer. His family was right there beside him.
 Well, his surrogate family, that is.
 “[On] draft day I was sitting in my host family’s house watching the ticker on my computer,” Gunkel said. “It was a long time waiting, but it was a big relief when I finally saw my name. After I talked to the scout that drafted me, and my family, it all started to sink in. I was just excited to be given an opportunity like this that a lot of people cant go through.”
 It turns out Gunkel’s time in Morehead City was short lived. He made just one start with the Marlins before moving on to begin the long journey that he hopes will one day take him to the major leagues.
 Gunkel packed his bags and left for Ft. Myers Fla, where he joined the Red Sox rookie league team in the Gulf Coast League (the GCL Red Sox). There, he went through a shoulder strengthening program before being allowed to pitch.
 Just before he left for Florida, Gunkel said in an interview, “Hopefully I can work my way up to the short season team in Lowell MA by the end of the year.”
 It only took him one inning. When he finally got the green light to toe the rubber in the GCL, he made just one appearance, a clean inning with one strikeout. His next outing came a level higher, with the short season Single-A Lowell Spinners.
 From that point is where his career really took off. In his first five appearances (7 2/3 innings), he allowed only one hit and struck out 10. It took him until his ninth outing of the season, more than a month after he joined the team, to give up his first run. He allowed three earned runs in two innings that day, and then never allowed another one in his final five appearances. 20 innings pitched, 14 appearances, 13 of them scoreless. When Gunkel threw his final pitch of the season on Sept. 3, he locked down a miniscule 1.35 ERA with 32 strikeouts and just three walks.
 It was certainly a good way to start a career, and it was a season Gunkel looks back on as a gift from baseball and from those close to him. The support has come pouring in like a spring rain for the righty Gunkel. Friends, family, classmates, and many others have been showering him with congratulations and well wishes.
 “All of my friends and family have been incredibly supportive since draft day, said the 21-year-old pitcher. “My parents text me everyday with another congratulations from another relative I haven’t talked to in years. I know I have a lot of people rooting for me, and that’s definitely going to help me get through all the hardships I’ll probably endure throughout my professional career.”
 One of those well wishers sticks out though. Someone who has been in Gunkel’s shoes, and knows how the process goes from here.
 “I talked to Joey [Wendle] a few times leading up to the draft and after the draft,” Gunkel said. “He basically told me what to expect throughout the whole draft process, which took a little of the stress out of it. Besides that, he just told me to be myself. To pitch my game and to do what I have done my whole career to be successful.”
 Wendle kept it short and simple.
 “Joe doesn’t really need too much advice from me,” Wendle said. “He is a smart player who knows his strengths and limitations.”
 “I am excited to see Joe start his professional career. He is very deserving of the opportunity and I have no doubt that he will have success. [He] has good stuff and good command, but it’s Joe’s mental toughness and ability to separate pitches that makes me believe he will have success. Very little phases [him], whether it is success or failure, he is always looking forward to the next pitch, inning or start. With his work ethic, he is only going to continue to get better.”
 As he does get better and enters a new and exciting chapter in his life, his time in West Chester purple and gold still holds a special place for Gunkel. It is where he learned a great deal about pitching, and about himself.
 “My time at West Chester really helped me grow as a person,” Gunkel said. “I learned a lot about myself and a lot about life in the three years I spent there. I met a lot of great friends and made a lot of memories that I will never forget. I probably wouldn’t be in the situation I am now if it wasn’t for the time I spent in West Chester.”
 “WCU [also] taught me a lot about the game. I learned how to attack certain hitters and how to manage a game as a whole. Both the success and struggles I had at West Chester, I think, really helped me grow as a pitcher. I learned how to cope with failure during a game and how to attack games when I’m having a lot of success.”
 “I [also] think the College World Series gave me a lot of confidence as a pitcher. It helped me develop the demeanor that all good pitchers have, which is that you know you are able to get every hitter out.”
 Even with all of his accolades and all of his talent, Gunkel remains grounded. Making it in professional baseball is a challenging, and long road that he manages in small steps. He knows what he can control and knows what he cannot, and with that, he earns a passing grade on one of the first mental tests of being a professional athlete.
 “As of right now I don’t really have any expectations for my professional career,” Gunkel said. “I would love to move up through the organization as fast as possible, but that’s not up to me. All I can focus on is how hard I work on a day to day basis and that is exactly where my focus is.”
Kenny Ayres is a fourth-year student majoring in communication studies with a journalism minor. He can be reached at KA739433@wcupa.edu. 

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