Kodie Kolden hasn’t hit enough home runs in a Washington State uniform not to appreciate the novelty that comes with each one. The four balls he’s sent over the fence this season are all meaningful in their own way, but one may resonate with Kolden more than the others.
It’s partially because when WSU’s junior shortstop sat on a 2-1 breaking ball, then cranked the chest-high pitch 350 feet over the left field wall at Dixie State, he instantly realized the payoff of an offseason dedicated to training his offensive approach, improving his patience and altering his bat path.
It’s partially because just two games earlier, Kolden was mired in a three-game slump that saw him fail to register a hit in 12 consecutive plate appearances. The Post Falls native and Lake City graduate had practically taken up residency inside WSU’s hitting facility last winter, and scraped together a makeshift batting cage of his own in the garage of his parents’ Hauser, Idaho, home so he could take hacks during COVID-19 quarantine. He’d put in the hours – as many as anyone on his team – but for three games in Davis, California, Kolden wasn’t reaping the rewards.
It’s partially because of the exchange that took place when Kolden rounded third and stamped his cleat on home plate. There waiting was Kyle Manzardo, another infielder from Coeur d’Alene who’s given WSU an offensive jolt in 2021 and someone Kolden’s shared a diamond with since the two were 9 years old. Pro baseball will eventually split them up, but it’s been rare for Kolden to have a baseball experience Manzardo didn’t also share in, and vice versa.
“We hit helmets and he was like, ‘Dude, we’re like the Coeur d’Alene Rake Show right now,’ ” Kolden recalled. “I’ll never forget that. That was a cool moment because we both raked that series. That’s more the dynamic of us just almost wanting each other to do even better than we are.”
Manzardo’s been nothing short of a sensation for the Cougars and second-year coach Brian Green. He’s a preseason All-American whose batting average of .377 and his 11 home runs respectively rank third and fourth in the Pac-12 Conference.
But the other half of the “Coeur d’Alene Rake Show” is emerging, too. When Manzardo and Kolden combined on 20 hits and 23 RBIs in the four-game Dixie State series, 11 of the hits and 12 of the RBIs came from the latter player.
Like his longtime buddy who happens to sit directly behind him in the Cougars’ order, Kolden’s also blossomed into one of the league’s top hitters, with a .320 average (24th in Pac-12) and 60 total hits (14th) in 45 games for the Cougars. He was recently named to the 30-player watch list for the Brooks Wallace Award, which recognizes college baseball’s top shortstop, and will make sure WSU’s roster maintains some tinge of North Idaho next season even if Manzardo leaves for pro baseball.
A surging leadoff hitter for a vastly improved WSU team who also happens to carry a 3.91 GPA while investing much of his nonbaseball time in his passion for kinesiology, Kolden figures to be one of the most impactful players and interesting stories for the Cougars when the 2021-22 season begins.
“Kodie, he’s a really talented player and he’s always been a good defender and I think he’s found a lot more consistency,” Green said. “… He’s been a good player for us, but offensively I think he’s been a lot more purposeful in practice just in terms of what he’s trying to do. Not as concerned with results in practice of taking a good batting practice or hitting X amount of line drives. It’s really been about trying to hone in on what specifically he needs to do that enables him to carry that into the games.”
Purpose, drive and a detail-oriented approach to fine-tuning his game have led Kolden to the best offensive season of his college career. His goals revolve mostly around team success, but asked if there were any personal targets he was trying to hit this season, Kolden confessed he wants to finish the season with a .300 averaged. He effectively secured that by going 2-for-5 in WSU’s series opener against Washington on Thursday.
It’s a testament to the adjustments Kolden’s made. In baseball, change can be awkward, especially for batters who’ve had deeply-ingrained habits dating back to when they picked up their first bat. Kolden discovered a hitch in his swing and felt he could be more efficient by keeping his hands inside and driving through the ball. Green encouraged him to be more conscious of the pitches he was swinging at – a lesson WSU’s offensive-minded coach has delivered not only to Kolden, but a handful of his teammates. Kolden also made modifications to his position in the batter’s box.
“For me, it kind of happened – when it all clicked was during winter break,” Kolden said. “I decided to open my stance more and try to see the ball with both of my eyes as opposed to my lead eye is what came to mind and I started doing it in scrimmages once I got back. I seemed to really like it and kind of just followed through the spring.”
But don’t downplay the importance of the garage batting cage – a quarantine project Kolden and his father took up not long after WSU’s 2020 season finished abruptly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Brady Kolden fancies himself as a handyman and the two completed the project in three days, with just one hiccup. The netting they used initially was too thin and wouldn’t hold as long as Kolden and his younger sister, a seventh-grade travel softball player, were repeatedly smoking balls into it.
Dad’s heaters rarely climbed into the 60s, but live pitching still beat the dry swings Kolden would’ve been taking without the makeshift cage.
“It was probably a few hours every day because there was not a lot to do, so me and my sister were in there all the time doing anything for hitting,” Kolden said. “Anything you could do in there with tennis balls. It was kind of makeshift, do whatever you can get in. It was a good time.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that Kolden was willing to devote so much time to his mechanics, swing and batting stance this offseason. He’s studying kinesiology at WSU and not just because he figured it would be an easy major to navigate given his athletic background, although sports did trigger his initial interest in the field.
Technically, a torn labrum did.
As a sophomore at Lake City, Kolden dislocated his left shoulder during a basketball game while going up for a rebound. He casually popped it back in, but the dislocations became more frequent. Every time Kolden dove headfirst, it popped. He dislocated it once while swimming and another time while sleeping. Two more dislocations at a varsity basketball game during Kolden’s senior season prompted him to finally see a specialist, who said his labrum was 75% torn and recommended surgery.
“I kind of just liked the rehab process of the whole thing and going through surgery and the whole PT side of it,” Kolden said.
Well, to clarify: “It sucks, but I loved going through the whole thing and you honestly just get stronger in general, not just the part of your body that needs rehab but your whole body just because you’re working out so often and you’re trying to get back to where you were.”
Kolden’s physical therapist, Brian Scherr, of the Coeur d’Alene-based Orthopedic Physical Therapy Institute, had a background with baseball players after working in different roles for the MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers and Angels. It piqued Kolden’s interest, so the high school senior began to quiz Scherr about different aspects of his job during rehab sessions.
Kolden took Scherr up on an offer to shadow him in a more official capacity, inevitably building the player’s interest in a PT-related career. He’s already identified six schools that offer strong graduate programs in the field: Baylor, Utah, Texas Tech, Montana, Eastern Washington and Idaho State.
“I’ve done observation hours under him and I don’t know, I really just love the idea of eventually going to physical therapy graduate school and seeing if I can get a doctorate or physical therapy degree,” Kolden said. “… He kind of got me into the field and I really enjoy it.”
But if 2021 is any indication of what Kolden’s capable of on a baseball field, especially with another offseason of work, he’s willing to shelve his PT dreams for the time being. Some of the best players Green’s tutored have been shortstops – a group of players that’s headlined by San Francisco Giants shortstop and three-time Gold Glove winner Brandon Crawford, who Green recruited to UCLA.
Kolden’s conscious of that and calls Crawford “an incredible talent.” He’s also done homework on Nick Gonzales, a former New Mexico State shortstop who led the country in batting average when he played under Green, calling the former All-American “unbelievable.”
Can Kolden work his way into the pantheon of great shortstops to play for Green? It’s probably too early to tell, but WSU’s second-year coach doesn’t have to look far to identify some parallels.
“I think the first thing is just the intensity of defensive practice and Kodie likes defense,” Green said. “If you’re going to play shortstop at a high level, you need to enjoy practice and you need to enjoy getting better at being not limited, but being really open to throwing at all angles and making difficult plays and enjoying those in practice.
“He doesn’t take days off ever and he takes his work very seriously. … He’s got a lot of tools and he’s got a bright future ahead of him, there’s no doubt about that.”