Photo courtesy of Ohio State Athletics.
With two outs in the fourth inning and a runner on first base, John Kuchno toed the rubber on the mound Wednesday at Bill Davis Stadium. Kuchno quickly stepped off the rubber, fired the ball to first and picked off Oklahoma State’s Devin Shines to end the inning, capping off his best start of the season.
This was not a situation Kuchno imagined he would be in two years ago.
Back then, he was playing his first year of high school baseball as a senior for St. Paul’s in Maryland.
The next year he attended Wake Forest. Kuchno was a 6-foot pitcher who planned to walk on to the baseball team, but he failed to earn a spot. The Ellicott City native grew four inches in his first year at Wake Forest, and his luck began to turn last summer.
His new height helped him add speed to his fastball, which is about 92 mph now, and he played well in a showcase event in Indianapolis, attended by new Ohio State pitching coach Mike Stafford.
Kuchno said he got the call from Stafford while in a hotel room with his best friend.
“He pulled up the Ohio State website, and there’s a picture of Nick Swisher on it, and I was like, ‘Nick Swisher did not go there,’ like, this is not happening,” Kuchno said. “It was a great moment, and I’ll hold it for my life.”
Now, as a full-time Division I pitcher, Kuchno is coming off his best start of the season. He held the No. 19 Oklahoma State Cowboys — who hold a team batting average of .302 — to one run in five innings.
“Wednesday you saw a step in the right direction,” Stafford said. “He has come a long way. Last year, he was just a student without playing baseball at Wake Forest, and now he is in a Buckeye uniform, pitching quality innings for us in midweek games.”
Coach Greg Beals said that outing was exactly what he was looking for.
“That’s the potential we saw in John, and hopefully he can build on that,” he said. “He could have a bright future ahead of him if he keeps pitching like that.”
Kuchno has has his struggles this season and with that outing he reduced his ERA by almost a point, moving it to 6.68 from 7.62.
He said he worked on his mechanics late the night before his start against the Cowboys and that Stafford suggested he adjust parts of his delivery.
“Me and my teammate Jacob Hayes came up and just (kept) working on mechanics,” Kuchno said. “I changed something. Coach Stafford had the idea, and my delivery went over the head from the wind up and just moved my hands down in the stretch.”
Stafford said Kuchno’s ability to keep his pitches low in the strike zone was the reason he succeeded.
“I give all the credit to Greg Solomon,” Kuchno said. “He tells me to work below his shoulders all the time in warm-up pitches, and that’s really helped me out a lot recently.”
As of now, the Buckeyes would be the fourth seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Beals said Kuchno would be more likely to get a start if the Buckeyes fell into the losers’ bracket. The way the tournament is set up, a team would have to win four to five games to make it to the end.
“John, with that outing today, starting to show something, may be that fourth-game starter in the tournament,” Beals said. “That will be a big game when we get there too.”
Stafford said Kuchno likely will be the starter in today’s matchup against Toledo in the Buckeyes’ last home game of the season. This year, Kuchno has appeared in 10 games, starting in seven, and holds a 1-4 record with 31 innings pitched.
“I kind of imagined it, but it was more of my friends who were always telling me: ‘You can do it. You’re going to be good someday,'” Kuchno said. “It’s just a great opportunity to be here, and I’m really blessed to have it.”