EVERETT — In baseball culture, there’s a common belief that a certain demeanor is required for relief pitchers to thrive in high-leverage save situations late in games. It’s a ‘closer’s mentality,’ if you will.
If there’s anyone on the Everett AquaSox that possesses that trait, it’s Travis Kuhn.
With a team-high three saves, Kuhn is one of Everett’s most trusted relievers in tense situations.
“Travis is a strong competitor who really takes each situation that he’s put in and thrives in it,” Everett pitching coach Ari Ronick said. “He’s someone that I trust and I can put him out in a difficult situation and he can compete, no matter what, no matter how he’s feeling, no matter what’s happening in the game and what’s happening around him.”
It’s a mentality Kuhn picked up during his two seasons pitching out of the bullpen for the University of San Diego, where he was employed exclusively as a relief ace. His best season was as a redshirt sophomore in 2019, when Kuhn fanned 64 batters over 48 innings with a 3.54 ERA.
Kuhn’s success in Division I baseball is more impressive considering the route he took to get there.
Until his senior year at Norco High School in Riverside County in Southern California, Kuhn toiled on junior varsity as an outfielder.
“I had a couple coaches bring it up to me going into my senior year,” Kuhn said of switching to pitcher. “I was a streaky hitter, had some pop, but the consistency in the swing and miss was pretty relevant.”
With a strong arm translating well to the mound from the outfield, Kuhn garnered attention from college scouts as a pitcher and chose USD over UC Riverside, Oregon and Hawaii.
The Mariners eventually nabbed Kuhn in the 19th-round of the 2019 MLB draft, in his first season of eligibility since entering college.
“It was one of the most stressful days of my life, but also one of the best days of my life,” Kuhn said.
The third day of the draft — rounds 11 through 40 — was particularly hectic, with Kuhn fielding constant phone calls from teams and negotiating signing bonuses. The Mariners, of course, were one of the teams most involved.
But it was another team that was on the phone with Kuhn when the Mariners made their selection in the 19th round.
The conversation ended with something like this: “Sorry, got to go. The Mariners just picked me.”
“It was pretty funny just letting them know, ‘Hey, I’m off the table,’” Kuhn said.
And the decision to sign? That was a pretty easy one. Kuhn decided it was the best decision for his family after his mother, Kimberly, was diagnosed with breast cancer last fall.
Kimberly is in full remission currently, but Kuhn learned upon her diagnosis that life can be unpredictable, and he wanted to be prepared for anything by taking the signing bonus.
“I wanted to do it for my family more than anything,” Kuhn said.
Kuhn’s role in Everett is about identical to the one he occupied with the Toreros, pitching key late innings for the AquaSox. Kuhn has struck out 19 batters in 16.1 innings and owns a 4.41 ERA with the AquaSox.
His arsenal, spearheaded with a fastball that sits in the 90s and a slider to compliment it, is a perfect recipe for putting out fires late in games.
“He attacks with what he has. He has a good fastball and a good slider and has enough trust in them to go after them with both pitches,” Ronick said.
Perhaps the outing that best exemplified Kuhn’s mental fortitude was a July 26 appearance against Tri-City, in which Kuhn inherited the bases loaded with no outs and was spotted just a two-run lead. Even after a dropped fly ball allowed an unearned run to score, Kuhn pulled his best Houdini impersonation by inducing a strikeout and a groundout to seal the AquaSox’s 5-4 win.
“I love it,” Kuhn said. “I think being in the game where I get to help my team win when they already have a lead or giving them the confidence that one run can get us the win, that’s kind of where I like to be and where I’m comfortable. I love the energy late in the game.”
It’s performances such as that one that reinforce his team’s faith in him.
“He’s a guy I trust at any time, in any situation,” AquaSox manager Louis Boyd said.