Columbia resident makes pitch for a spot in the big leagues

For the Howard County Times
"I have been blessed with talent; I want to see how good I can get."

The bus carrying the Altoona (Pa.) Curve baseball team left northwest Pennsylvania about 9:30 p.m. following a recent game, and after more than three hours arrived at their hotel in Annapolis before facing the Bowie Baysox the next day.

Altoona relief pitcher John Kuchno, a Baltimore native who grew up in the Dorsey's Search neighborhood of Columbia and attended Glenelg Country School, had grabbed a hamburger and Coke before he got on the bus for the trip to his home state.

The St. Paul's School graduate is used to bus trips in the minor leagues. He has spent the past four summers playing in State College, Pa., in the New York-Penn League; in Charleston, W.Va., in the South Atlantic League; and in Bradenton, Fla., in the high Single-A Florida State League before advancing to Double-A Altoona of the Eastern League this year.

"I had a good setup (early this year). I had a bunch of DVDs on my laptop but then I broke my laptop, so the movies went out the window," Kuchno, 24, said with a laugh. "I just read books on my phone a lot. I am on Twitter a lot and just checking stuff out. I am not big on movies (shown on the bus) because you can hardly hear it."

Kuchno was a solid student at St. Paul's. Some of his classmates are working in finance in New York City, attending medical school at Howard University and selling domain names. Some are making big bucks. Kuchno earns just a few thousand dollars per month in-season as a hard-throwing right-hander.

If he makes the major leagues, however, the minimum yearly salary is about $500,000. "It is not the money," Kuchno said. "If that is the case you are probably doing it for the wrong reasons. I have been blessed with talent; I want to see how good I can get. I was never a big guy in Howard County or Baltimore (as a prospect). No one really knew me."

One day they might.

Moving up the ladder

Tom Filer, an assistant pitching coordinator in the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system, said he loves Kuchno's size, 6 feet 5, 210 pounds.

"He is a big guy. He has the tools that it takes to be a big leaguer," said Filer, who pitched in college at La Salle and in the big leagues with the Milwaukee Brewers, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets and Chicago Cubs.

This year Kuchno was promoted up another rung on the minor league ladder, arriving in Altoona. The Curve lost to the Bowie Baysox, a farm team of the Orioles, in the opening round of the Eastern League playoffs earlier this month.

Kuchno, who is single, shared an apartment during most of the season with a few teammates, including pitcher Josh Smith, who also lived in Altoona with his wife and infant daughter.

For many 20-somethings, the Double-A level can be the make-or-break point in their pursuit of making it to The Show, the major leagues.

"He has been performing well and is on the right track," said St. Paul's coach Pat Walsh, who was an assistant coach when Kuchno was a senior at the school. "He learned how to pitch and then he grew" several inches as a freshman at Wake Forest before he transferred to Ohio State.

One of his teammates at St. Paul's was catcher Rob Lucido, who is from Woodstock in Howard County and was drafted in the 40th round by the Toronto Blue Jays this past June after playing in college at Amherst.

"He is a workhorse," Lucido said. "He did not have the overpowering stuff (in high school). He just worked hard and learned how to pitch. He grew into his body and his natural talent took over."

Kuchno was used as a relief pitcher this season, compiling an ERA of 3.46 with seven saves in 40 games and 67 2/3 innings.

In 2014, while pitching for Bradenton, Kuchno forced batters to hit into 31 double plays. That was the second most of any pitcher in pro baseball, including the major leagues.

He began this season as the No. 12 right-handed starting pitcher in the Pirates' minor league system, according to Baseball America, though he made the move to the bullpen in 2015.

A late bloomer

What's unusual is Kuchno's delayed path to success. He played three years of junior varsity baseball at St. Paul's and was a late varsity cut as a junior, according to Walsh.

He pitched well as a senior on the varsity but had no Division I offers. Kuchno attended Wake Forest as a freshman and was denied the chance to even walk-on for the Division I program, because his fastball registered only in the 80s.

Kuchno worked for the school newspaper and covered the baseball team.

After his freshman year he was playing for a travel team, the Howard County Raiders, when Ohio State assistant coach Mike Stafford saw him pitch at a tournament in Indiana the summer of 2010. In addition to growing several inches as a freshman at Wake Forest, his fastball jumped into the 90s

On the way home from the tournament, Kuchno paid a visit to Ohio State and ended up transferring there. He played two years for the Buckeyes.

He was drafted in the 18th round in 2012 out of Ohio State — from which he has a bachelor's degree in political science — by the Pirates and has moved up a level each season. The last minor league stop in the Pittsburgh system is Triple-A Indianapolis.

Kuchno will spend part of the offseason working out at Ohio State with other pro players, then will head to spring training in Bradenton in February.

"I am feeling great. I am really confident, and I am excited about the strides I have made," he said. "I still have a lot of room to improve. You always want to keep improving. I am excited to get to work."

THE JOHN KUCHNO FILE

Birthplace/date: Baltimore/May 21, 1991

Hometown: Columbia

Neighborhood: Dorsey's Search

Elementary school/Middle school: Glenelg Country

High school: St. Paul's in Brooklandville, class of 2009

Colleges: Wake Forest, Ohio State

Sport: baseball

Position: right-handed pitcher

Current Major League affiliation: Pittsburgh Pirates

Draft status: 18th round in 2012 out of Ohio State

2015 team: Double-A Altoona Curve of the Eastern League

2015 pitching statistics: 3-6 record with an ERA of 3.46 in 40 games with seven saves out of the bullpen

Did you know? In 2014, while pitching for Single-A Bradenton in the Florida State League, Kuchno forced batters to hit into 31 double plays. That was the second most of any pitcher in all of pro baseball, including the major leagues … He first attended Wake Forest before playing baseball at Ohio State … Kuchno played just one year of varsity baseball in high school at St. Paul's … He is son of John and Vicki and has a sister, Mary Beth … He won the Altoona Curve community service award this year and was honored before the Pirates game in Pittsburgh on Sept. 16.

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