Kountis finds home as closer for Wild Things

July 12, 2014

When the Frontier League season drew to a close last year, Jonathan Kountis’ career as a professional baseball player had fallen to the point where he was playing for the Greys, the league’s traveling team, and had a 1-5 record with an unimpressive 7.08 ERA. He displayed all the signs of a being a pitcher who had been pushed onto baseball’s scrap heap.

However, Wild Things manager Bart Zeller didn’t see a struggling starting pitcher when he watched Kountis, even when the right-hander from Akron, Ohio, gave up five runs in five innings to Washington in his final outing of the year.

What Zeller saw was the future closer of the Wild Things.

Zeller remembered Kountis as the being best ninth-inning pitcher in the Frontier League in 2012, when the latter had a 6-2 record, an impressive 1.08 ERA and 19 saves for the Lake Erie Crushers. Kountis struck out 68 batters in 59 2/3 innings that year.

“What I saw last year was a pitcher who was miscast as a starter,” Zeller explained. “I knew starting wasn’t what Kountis wanted to do. He told me that he wanted to be a closer and that’s all I needed to hear. I told him, ‘With the record you had at Lake Erie, the job is yours.’ So far, he hasn’t left anything to be desired.”

Kountis (6-3, 220) has rejuvenated his career and played a major role in the Wild Things spending six weeks in first place. He has a 1-2 record, a 2.28 ERA and has a chance to break Washington’s single-season saves record before the all-star break. He tied th record of 19 saves by B.J. Borsa in 2004. Kountis earned his 19th save Saturday in the Wild Things’ 5-4 win over Florence.

Kountis will be one of seven Wild Things in the league’s all-star game Wednesday in Sauget, Ill.

“Jonathan has been excellent,” Zeller said.

That Kountis’ career has led to Washington is quite remarkable. That career has included several unexpected twists and unlikely incidents, including changing schools before his senior year of college, slicing open a finger on a nail protruding from a wall in the Dallas airport and learning how to be a relief pitcher by watching videos on mlb.com.

Kountis spent three years as a starting pitcher at Ohio Dominican University and was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 42nd round in 2009. As a 42nd rounder, Kountis didn’t have much bargaining power, so he opted to return to school for his senior year. Instead of going back to ODU, Kountis transferred to Embry Riddle University, an aeronautical school in Daytona Beach, Fla., that happened to have a powerhouse baseball program at the NAIA level.

Kountis pitched well enough for Embry Riddle that he was drafted again, this time in the 19th round by the New York Mets in 2010. He performed well in a brief stints that summer for the Mets’ affiliates in Brooklyn and Kingsport, Tenn.

“Things didn’t work out as planned,” Kountis said. “The next year, the Mets brought a lot of pitchers in for spring training and I was demoted to Kingsport, where I had already played.”

He was released after pitching only 5 1/3 innings.

“It was a lost year,” Kountis said. “I didn’t know what to do next. I heard that John Massarelli was managing Lake Erie, and I had worked out at Mazz’s training facility in Canton, so I asked him for an invite to the Crushers’ spring training in 2012. He said he’d invite me, but the only job he had open was closer. I said, ‘OK, I’ll give it a try.’

“I didn’t know anything about being a closer. I didn’t know where to begin.”

So Kountis booted his computer, logged on to mlb.com and watched videos of relief pitchers. One player in particular, Jonathan Papelbon, caught his eye. So Kountis studied the video clips of Papelbon and changed his pitching motion to mimic that of the major leaguer.

“I couldn’t emulate Mariano Rivera. Nobody has a cutter like his,” Kountis said. “I saw Papelbon’s videos and liked the way he hides the ball. He also threw the ball over the top, so I could keep the same arm slot by throwing like him.”

With the help of a split-fingered fastball that he developed while with the Crushers, Kountis had the breakout year he needed, yet he wasn’t signed by any major league team during 2012. That winter, Kountis went to six tryout camps. The last one was in Toronto and the Blue Jays invited him to their minor league camp for spring training.

“I was in extended spring training when they said they wanted me to be the closer at (Class A) Vancouver,” Kountis recalled. “I was on my way to Vancouver when I was in the Dallas airport. I sat a bag down while exchanging money for Canadian currency. When I was done, I reached for my bag, but a nail was sticking out of the wall and I hit it with my hand. I split open the middle finger on my pitching hand.”

Though his finger had not healed, Kountis pitched in 10 games for Vancouver with little consistency. He often reopened the gash while pitching. He was released before the finger healed.

“I didn’t have a feel for the pitches,” Kountis explained. “The finger kept ripping open.”

Kountis wasn’t unemployed very long as he landed a job with Laredo of the independent American Association. “It just didn’t work out there,” Kountis said, and he was released again after only four games and 3 2/3 innings.

He returned to the Frontier League and signed with the Greys. But being a last-place team, the Greys needed starting pitchers more than a closer.

“I hadn’t thrown more than 30 pitches in a game in two years,” Kountis said. “I thought, ‘Do I have to develop a windup again?’ But there was only a month left in the season, so I decided to give it a try and see where it took me.”

Kountis is friends with former Wild Things pitcher and coach Gary Lee, who suggested Washington as a home for him in 2014.

“All the Greys players were free agents at the end of last season. The first day other teams could talk to me, Bart Zeller called,” Kountis said. “He said I could close for Washington and gave me 48 hours to think about it. I didn’t need that long. I had known Bart since 2012 and I knew some of the relief pitchers who played for him. I also knew he won a championship with Joliet. He knows how to put together a good team.”

Zeller has another playoff contender this year, and Kountis will be counted on to secure many important victories in the season’s second half.

“I’m all for the team,” Kountis said. “This team has the best chemistry of any I’ve been around. There are no cliques, no evil seed. … I hope we can bring a championship to the city.”

Chris Dugan has been covering local sports for more than 30 years and has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1986. He was named sports editor in 2006. Before joining the O-R, he was sports editor at the Democrat-Messenger in Waynesburg. He is a former member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. If you have an idea for a story, send him an email at dugan@observer-reporter.com.

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