Chills were running down Kyle McGowin’s spine as he stepped on the mound for his second career start as a Washington Nationals pitcher.
The reality of the situation — defying the odds to transition from one of the smallest towns on Long Island to the majors — still hasn’t sunk in for the 2010 Pierson graduate.
“Maybe it will one day, but not anytime soon I hope,” McGowin said. “This has been awesome. And it’s fun to have strong support from home.”
In his no-decision against the Florida Marlins Friday, May 24, McGowin gave up five runs on six hits with two strikeouts and one walk across four innings. He also recorded a hit and a run. The 27-year-old born in Southampton has now allowed a run per inning over his two starts, with opposing hitters batting .310. He has a 1.57 WHIP and five strikeouts in seven innings.
“Not much was working,” McGowin said. “I had to battle.”
He knows he still has some work to do, and while he was filling in for injured Jeremy Hellickson, with Aníbal Sánchez needing a minor league rehab start following a 10-day stint on the injured list with left hamstring tightness, the six-foot-three, 200-pound right-hander has a chance to redeem himself when the Nationals travel to Atlanta to take on the Braves Wednesday, May 29. His start begins at 7:20 PM.
“I need to work on my command and execution,” McGowin said. “It could be a little bit of everything. I’ll continue what I normally do — throw bullpens and lift.”
McGowin was called upon early to relieve a struggling Hellickson against the Chicago Cubs May 19, and lasted three innings over which he gave up three hits, a walk, and three runs — two earned — throwing 44 pitches to the 14 batters he faced.
“It’s a great feeling,” McGowin said of being called up just three days prior, adding he picked relievers’ brains for tips on the transition. “It’s awesome to be back and be able to help the big-league club.”
It worked well for him, because his head coach liked what he saw.
“McGowin pitched really well,” Nationals coach Dave Martinez said following the 6-5 loss to the Cubs. “Apparently his slider’s been pretty good, he’s been sinking his fastballs, getting ahead, throwing a lot of strikes, so it’s kind of nice having him.”
In eight starts with the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies before joining the MLB rotation, he compiled a 4.32 ERA and 1.31 WHIP. In 41 2⁄3 innings, he allowed 42 hits, including six homers and 12 walks, with 50 strikeouts. His last outing for Fresno came on May 12, when he gave up no runs in 52⁄3 innings, and allowed one hit and one walk with 11 punchouts.
What’s helped McGowin get noticed is his strong slider, which he learned while attending Savannah State University in Georgia. He said it didn’t take him long to get a good feel for it. It led the right-hander to a 12-1 record and 1.49 ERA over 96.1 innings pitched. He also led the league in strikeouts with 111. He was a fifth-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Angels in 2013, and was traded to Washington for Danny Espinoza prior to the 2017 season.
“My first impression was he knows how to pitch,” said Fresno pitching coach Brad Holman. “He can spin a breaking ball, slider’s very good. He’s got a feel for making the ball move, manipulating the baseball. He’s a good competitor and works hard and does all the things that go into being good at your craft.”
McGowin received his first call up last season when teams expand their rosters at the end of the season. At the time, he headed MiLB with a 0.90 WHIP, and was leading the Nationals’ minor league system with 152 strikeouts. He went 0-0 with a 5.87 ERA in five September big league games, making his debut September 5 against the Cardinals. He pitched four scoreless innings in his only start September 26 against the Marlins. His ERA dropped to 2.70 after that game but shot up to 5.87 when the Rockies scored three runs in one inning in the last game of the Nationals’ season.
“It was amazing, and definitely helped for this time,” McGowin said. “Having some experience and getting the nerves out of the way.”
What McGowin learned in his time back with the Grizzlies is to be himself, attacking hitters but not doing too much.
“I’m not switching things up too much and doing more than I’d need to,” he said. “I’m just being myself and doing what got me here.”
Holman said it’s been a constant maturation process, and getting a taste of The Show helped McGowin get acclimated, which the coach noted is the hardest thing for a new pitcher to do. Although the major league balls were finally brought down to the Triple-A level to minimize the trauma, there’s still that extra third deck that’s impossible to look past.
The Fresno coach said it won’t be long until McGowin gets the hang of things, especially with his mental game being night and day different from last year.
“With Kyle, he’s pretty easy. You give him a direction, he goes in it,” Holman said. “He doesn’t have a lot of panic in him, so you know if he lost his changeup on a given day, he’ll resort to his fastball and slider and we’ll get back to working on his changeup. He’s pretty good about self-evaluation, recognizing what he needs to do based off what happened the previous outing and where he’s at in his career.”
And when McGowin is hot, look for the slider Holman never gets tired of seeing.
“He’s got one of the better sliders in the game — he can really spin it, and that gives him an option in any count. He never has to give into a hitter,” Holman said. “He’s got the proverbial putaway pitch, which is uncharacteristic of pitchers, even in the major league. He’s got a pitch that he can throw and get a swing and a miss with, and that’s a big deal.”