It can be tempting to think of Kyle McGowin as a late bloomer. But a better term might be “well-preserved.”
The 2010 Pierson High School graduate, now 27, recently made his second career start as a major league pitcher, getting the nod on the hill for the Washington Nationals on May 29. He gave up five earned runs over four innings with six hits and a walk and two strikeouts.
McGowin was first called up to the majors at the tail end of last season, and started in one game while working out of the bullpen in others. He started this season with AAA Fresno, where he had a 4-2 record and led the team with 50 strikeouts, but was called up on May 16. He pitched in relief for the Nationals the next day, and has been on the roster since.
It’s been a long journey for McGowin. He was a solid pitcher for the Pierson Whalers when he played there, but wasn’t the kind of hurler who was posting no-hitters with any regularity, or pinging on anyone’s radar as a sure-fire bet to make it to the majors.
As a player on a small schools team, he was also expected to be versatile, playing a variety of other positions on days he wasn’t pitching—including catcher—and he was also expected to produce at the plate, which he did.
He played other sports as well, with time spent on Pierson’s varsity soccer team, and as a member of nearby East Hampton High School’s varsity wrestling team.
Without a laser focus on pitching, McGowin did not reach his full potential in high school. But what he did do, according to former high school coach Sean Crowley, was preserve his arm. By the time he made it to Savannah State, McGowin was fresher than a lot of other pitchers who had already burned out their arms. He began to shine in college, and by 2013 he was drafted into the Los Angeles Angels farm system, then eventually made his way into the Nationals organization.
It wasn’t all downhill from there, however. McGowin suffered a big setback two years ago, struggling with his pitches and a lack of confidence that was unfamiliar to him. It had him questioning whether he would ever get to the majors, and if his pro baseball career was on its way to being over. A friend recommended a book to him: “The Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide To Inner Excellence,” by Gary Mack. It “changed everything,” according to McGowin, and helped set him on the right path again.
In an interview with reporters in the locker room after his recent start, McGowin was asked what pitches were working for him. He said, simply, “everything,” letting out a quick laugh that was without arrogance, and seemed more an expression of joy at where he’d arrived.
“The journey is still unbelievable,” he said in an interview with The Press last week. “It still never sinks in. It’s been a long journey full of many ups and downs, but it’s all worth it living a childhood dream.”
McGowin was called up to the majors for the first time at the end of last season, and was able to get a start under his belt, which helped increase his confidence going into this year. He’s been used in relief as well, which he said was somewhat unfamiliar to him because he’s always been a starting pitcher—and he’s happy to be able to embrace that role again this year. With more than four months left in the season, he’s hoping he can make even more of an impact with the team, whether he’s starting or relieving.
“Starting for the Nationals is amazing, to be able to get an opportunity like that is something you always dream about. So I just have to go out and do what I’ve always done and leave a lasting impression on the team,” he said. “Starting and relieving are completely different, but it all comes down to executing pitches. I have a great group of guys both in the starting rotation and bullpen to pick their brains and learn as much as I can.”
It’s been a thrill for McGowin’s family and friends to see him make it to the big show. Crowley knows him as well as anyone, having coached McGowin through his junior year, and even coaching McGowin before he reached the varsity level. Crowley’s son, Casey Crowley, was the starting catcher for the Whalers when McGowin was a pitcher. They both went to see McGowin’s start at the end of last season, and have been following his progress this year as well.
Crowley said he isn’t surprised that McGowin has made it big, even though it was far from a sure bet when he was in high school.
“I always knew he had a very live arm, and I knew he was long, with a lot of angles,” Crowley said. “I also knew his father is a big man, and I knew he’d get big like that.”
Playing far fewer games than players in the South, who Crowley said sometimes play 100 games a year, helped preserve the strength and energy in that live arm, and made it possible for McGowin to fully develop in college. Players who come up in the South, in states like Georgia and Florida, seemingly have an advantage, with the warmer climate allowing them to play more often, and attract more attention from scouts. But Crowley said that growing up in the relative obscurity of the Northeast—and at a small, unrecognizable public school on the east end of Long Island—seemed to work to McGowin’s advantage.
“It’s not a bad thing that he came from the Northeast,” Crowley said. “An arm only has so many pitches in it. He wasn’t overused as a youngster.”
It was a special moment last year for Crowley when he went to see McGowin play. He was seated alongside McGowin’s parents, Shawn and Stacy—Crowley had also coached Shawn, who is 47, when he was in high school at Pierson. He was particularly happy to see McGowin get on base in the first inning, and score a run. McGowin had laid down a bunt, and made it to first on an error, and was later driven in by Bryce Harper. The two high-fived at home plate, which Crowley said was great to see. In many decades of coaching, McGowin is the only former player of Crowley’s who has made it to the majors. He knows it’s special.
“He really looks like he belongs there,” he said. “It’s such a great experience, and his parents are so proud.”
The significance of making it to where he’s at, especially coming from such a small town, is not lost on McGowin either.
“Most guys are amazed about how many kids I graduated with in 2010,” McGowin said of the reactions from his teammates when he tells them about where he’s from. “Most guys may come from small towns, but they often have big schools. I think it’s pretty amazing growing up in such a small and close town and having this dream come true. It’s awesome. I feel like I am able to share it with so many people since we’re all so close.
“I still talk to a lot of friends, family and some teachers from home,” he added. “They keep up to date almost weekly, if not daily. They just tell me about how much support I have and that they’re proud, and how crazy it is to see me on TV.”