Jason Kanzler arrived at the University at Buffalo carrying a grudge the size of the Yankees payroll. It’s served both he and the Bulls quite well.
Kanzler transferred to UB for his sophomore season after being cut from the Northeastern baseball team as a freshman. Last year, as a junior, he won a national Rawlings Gold Glove for his play in center field. This season he’s been both an offensive and defensive rock for the Bulls, who already have set a school record for conference victories with about one-third of the season remaining.
A team projected to regress after losing Tom Murphy to the pros and other players to injury has instead flourished. Kanzler is the team leader in average (.315) and steals (14). He’s also the Mid-American Conference leader in home runs (eight) and RBIs (40) and likely will get an opportunity to follow Murphy into pro ball.
“He’s getting a lot of interest,” UB coach Ron Torgalski said. “Somebody will give him a chance to play at the next level. I can guarantee that. And that’s been his goal. He started out the year just hitting everything, driving balls, RBI guy, which for a 2-hole hitter to be at 40 RBIs already and leading the conference in RBIs is special.”
A native of Penfield, Kanzler began his college days at Northeastern, where he had every expectation of making the team as a walk-on. His performance during two weeks of tryouts convinced him he had made a more than adequate impression. Yet his name was absent when the final roster was posted.
“I don’t like to lose and be told I can’t do something,” Kanzler said. “That will drive me further. I’ve always been like that. But I think when I got cut I realized I’m going to have to work twice as hard as everyone else who is kind of blessed with natural ability. In a sense it was probably a good thing that I was cut because I probably wouldn’t be the player I am today if I didn’t get cut.”
Said Torgalski: “He’s a kid that plays with a chip on his shoulder. He wants to prove to people that, hey, you made a mistake on me. I’m going to do what I need to do to get to the next level. And his first year or two here he was all right, but he’s a kid that just lives and dies baseball. Whether he’s in the weight room getting strong, working on his speed, doing something to get better. He’s a kid that has just made himself a great player and I haven’t seen a better center fielder in the last four years. He’s phenomenal. He was a Gold Glove guy last year, which they pick three outfielders in the country. He just makes play after play.”
UB was alerted to Kanzler’s availability by a former player coaching summer ball. Torgalski and his staff were urged to take a look and decide for themselves.
“We went and he did some things that you can’t teach,” Torgalski said. “We said, ‘Absolutely, let’s bring him in.’ ”
Although he was hitless in Friday’s 6-1 victory over Ohio University, Kanzler’s offensive improvement continues to boost his pro stock. He first caught fire with the bat last May, finishing the season on a 14-game hitting streak during which he batted .475 with seven doubles, five homers and 19 RBIs while winning two MAC Player of the Week Awards. His defense has pretty much always been exemplary, an expansive highlight reel of catches made running in, away and laterally, many on a full, headlong dive.
“It’s a luxury,” closer River McWilliams said. “It gives you a little extra confidence that you can pound the zone and some of those little flare singles that you see with metal bats these days are going to be taken away. Some of those balls where they get squared up and find a gap are going to be taken away. It allows you to pitch with a little more confidence and make a few more mistakes around the zone.”
Starter/shortstop Mike Burke said: “I’ve seen him make so many phenomenal catches I can’t even tell you. It’s routine now. He’s a helluva player. It’s awesome to have him out there.”
The intensity in his eyes when the subject is broached verifies that Kanzler still feels slighted by how his college career commenced.
“I was given a two-week tryout basically and I was shocked when they cut me because I thought I was definitely good enough to be on the team,” he said. “But my name wasn’t on the roster when they released it and it was shocking.”
“Big old chip on my shoulder,” he said. “Nice validation every time I do something nice here. I get the last laugh.”