It’s been a roller-coaster year for just about everyone, Kyle McGowin not excluded.
The Sag Harbor native was expecting 2020 to be his first full season in Major League Baseball with the Washington Nationals, for whom he appeared in seven games in 2019, culminating in a World Series ring for the 28-year-old right handed pitcher. All McGowin needed was a strong spring training, and his chances for making the big league ball club seemed to have been good.
But then coronavirus hit, cutting spring training short and forcing Major League Baseball to make some drastic changes, such as pushing the start of its season from March 26 all the way to July 23. Included in those changes was the cancellation of the Minor League Baseball season, forcing each major league franchise to have an “alternate site” for players to train and keep ready for the season.
Ultimately, McGowin did not make the Opening Day roster, and was instead sent to the team’s alternate site at FredNats Stadium in Fredricksburg, Virginia, the home of the Nationals’ Class-A minor league affiliate, on July 18. McGowin admitted that he felt like he was “left in the dark” a bit when it came to the Nationals game plan as to when they planned on using him. He was just told to be ready at any moment to get called up.
Weeks passed, including the halfway point of the shortened season, and McGowin was still waiting. Finally, on September 2, McGowin got the call he had been waiting for. He was going to replace injured relief pitcher Javy Guerra on the active roster and pitch out of Washington’s bullpen.
“I was on the taxi squad for the whole trip,” McGowin explained. “I had already went up for Boston, went to Philly and then here in Atlanta. When we were leaving Philly, they called me into the office and said, ‘We’re going to activate you off the taxi squad.’”
Even though McGowin has gone through the process of getting the call to the major league club a few times now, he said it’s still both an exciting and nerve-wracking experience.
“You get nervous any time they call you in the office, because it could be about anything,” he said. “I still get nervous, even though I know what’s going to happen. Even when the phone rings in the bullpen, I still get chills just thinking about it.”
McGowin may have hit the highest of highs in his roller-coaster year when he made his first appearance of the 2020 season this past Saturday night.
Behind a devastating slider, McGowin pitched two-and-a-third scoreless relief innings for starting pitcher Erick Fedde and wound up getting his first Major League victory in a 10-4 win over the host Atlanta Braves.
In his first appearance on a major league mound since August 19, 2019, McGowin replaced Fedde with two outs in the bottom of the fourth. He threw five sliders to Braves’ slugger Marcell Ozuna, eventually getting him to whiff for the strikeout. He came back out for the fifth inning and struck out two in a quick 11-pitch, one-two-three inning, and then he sat down the order again on 14 pitches in the sixth. After retiring his first seven batters,
McGowin issued a leadoff walk in the seventh before Washington manager Davey Martinez decided to pull him from the game.
“It felt good,” to get his first win in the majors, McGowin said on Sunday, about an hour before another tilt with the Braves. “It’s probably the most amped up I’ve been since I’ve been here. I attacked the hitters and tried to give my team as many innings as I could.”
While he’s enjoying his time now with the Nationals, McGowin said that his time at the team’s alternate site has “honestly been one of the hardest things we’ve ever had to do in our careers.” In a normal season, players stay ready for the majors by playing a full minor league season against opposing clubs. But this season was far from normal.
McGowin has been relegated to facing the same four or five batters every day, or every other day, he said. There aren’t enough players at the alternate site to field a full team, let alone two teams to face one another, so it’s been extremely difficult to prepare for the majors this season.
“Theoretically, as the pitcher, you should have the advantage, but now it’s tough because when the same batters get to see you every day, they get the advantage,” he explained.
“You’re trying to work on stuff, and you might throw one nasty pitch, and you say to yourself, ‘That was disgusting. I thought that was a really good pitch.’ When you’re facing a hitter you’ve never seen you before, they’re probably swinging at it and striking out or getting out. Now, these guys are taking these pitches and it really messes with you, but then you’re thinking, maybe it’s just because they’ve seen me so much?
“It’s tough mentally, honestly, but it is what it is,” he added. “You’re seeing the same handful of guys every day. You go to and from the hotel to the field, you don’t have much of a life outside of the hotel room. It’s so repetitive.”
It was supposed to be a season highlighted by receiving his World Series ring in the Nationals home opener against the New York Mets on April 2 — but that also got botched by the coronavirus. McGowin was expecting to run on the field that day along with his teammates and celebrate that championship one last time. Instead, the alternate site players received their rings in a much more subdued fashion. McGowin was called into the office of the alternate site manager, Randy Knorr, who, along with Assistant General Manager Mark Scialabba, gave McGowin his ring on July 9.
“They said, ‘Hey, we’ve got something for you. We know it’s not the way you imagined getting it,’ and they gave me the box,” he said. “I must have had this look on my face, because the whole time they were like, ‘I wish you could see your face right now.’ I was just smiling a lot. It was pretty awesome.”
McGowin is hopeful that his stay with the Nationals is extended for the rest of the season, and his manager said in his post-game press conference that if he keeps throwing the way he did Saturday night, that could be a possibility.
“If he can continue to throw strikes, like he did tonight,” Martinez said, “he could earn that long-relief [role], because we need one. He could step in there.
“And also the way that righties saw him tonight — and they were pretty good hitters — we may be able to put him in a spot with just right-handed hitters and see where that takes us as well.”
McGowin said he is looking toward the future now and putting the negatives behind him.
“I’m done pouting that I didn’t have the opportunities,” he said. “I took that time I had at the alternate site to work on and improve myself and to put myself in a spot to help the team.
“You have take the negatives and turn them into positives and that’s what I plan on doing,” he added, “and hopefully it’ll all work out.”