WASHINGTON — Kyle McGowin of Sag Harbor didn’t make a very good first impression with the Washington Nationals.
After being traded from the Angels after the 2016 season, the Pierson High graduate posted an ERA of 5.95 in the minors last year at three different levels. But McGowin capped a remarkable turnaround when he made his big-league debut here Wednesday, pitching in relief against the Cardinals after leading all of the minors in WHIP this season.
“It all started in the [Arizona] fall league,” said McGowin, 26, standing at his locker in the Nationals clubhouse. “I would talk with [coaches] and be confident and know what kind of pitcher I was.”
McGowin relieved Nationals starter Tanner Roark in the sixth inning Wednesday.
In the stands were the parents, grandmother, uncle and girlfriend of the Southampton native.
“I had the chills running in," he said of his jog from the bullpen. "But I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I would be.”
McGowin retired the first batter he faced, Harrison Bader, on a pop-up but then got a rude welcome to The Show as Yairo Munoz of the Cardinals blasted a homer into the bleachers in leftfield on a 3-and-1 pitch.
“It is an introduction [to the majors]. I put myself in that situation, I fell behind in the count,” McGowin said.
McGowin retired the next two batters, include slugger Matt Carpenter on a flyout, to finish his one-inning stint.
“We really want to see some of these younger guys pitch and see what we have for the future,” said Dave Martinez, the Nationals' first-year manager and a Brooklyn native.
McGowin’s improbable road to the majors began as an unheralded pitcher in high school who got very little interest from Division I colleges. He threw about 87 as a senior and had some interest as a possible walk-on for Division II and D-I programs. McGowin decided to attend Savannah State in Georgia, hardly a baseball college power.
He was drafted by the Angels out of Savannah State in the fifth round in 2013. After the 2016 season, he was traded along with fellow Angels minor league pitcher Austin L. Adams to the Nationals for major-league infielder Danny Espinosa.
After a down year in 2017, he pitched in the Arizona Fall League and worked on his mental approach.
“I read a couple of books [on that]. I think that was one of the best things I could have done for my career,” he said. “I gained reassurance in what I was doing was working. All of my pitches were working. My slider was back to where it was a couple of years ago. Last year I lost confidence in [the slider]. My arm has never felt so strong.”
He began this year at Single-A Potomac and was then bumped up to Double-A Harrisburg. McGowin was then promoted to Triple-A Syracuse, where he was 3-2, 1.20 in eight starts and allowed just 26 hits in 52.2 innings.
McGowin started for Syracuse on Monday in the last game of the year for the Chiefs. After the game he was told by Syracuse manager Randy Knorr he was headed to the nation’s capital.
Among those that the pitcher called with the good news was his mother.
“She broke down hysterically,” he said.
Mark Scialabba, the director of player development for the Nationals, watched his rapid rise.
“We are very excited about Kyle's progress this year,” Scialabba said. “He's improved in all areas and has certainly earned this opportunity.”
Former big-league pitcher Paul Menhart, the minor-league pitching coordinator for Washington, saw him pitch in person several times this year.
“Kyle’s crossfire delivery gives him deception that makes it very difficult for batters to feel very comfortable facing him," Menhart said. "He has very good feel for three pitches that he mixes up quite well.”
Austen Williams, another Nationals pitcher, was teammates in the minors this year with McGowin. Williams made his big-league debut Sunday, Sept. 2.
“We have both kind of turned around our careers,” Williams said. “We didn’t put up great numbers last year. We put that behind us.”
McGowin admitted he thought his dream to make the majors may not come true.
“I am not going to lie and say it never creeped into my mind I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I was told I wasn’t going to be here from Day 1. I took that as a challenge. I am happy people said that about me.”