As the Ducks continue to concoct the roster they hope will bring a championship back to Long Island, they have thrown in a dash of just about everything thus far. Familiar tastes (Dan Lyons and Cody Puckett), new ingredients (Tyler Wilson and Jim Fuller) and even some international zest (Chin-Hui Tsao and Eury De La Rosa) have been thrown into the mix. In addition to bringing back left-handed starting pitcher Jack Snodgrass this week, Long Island also added its first bit of local flavor into the recipe by signing right-handed starter Keith Couch.
The native of Elmont, New York spent his entire amateur career playing baseball on Long Island. He pitched for Holy Trinity Diocesan High School in Hicksville before going on to throw for the Panthers of Adelphi University. Now, after spending seven seasons in the Boston Red Sox organization with teams up and down the east coast, Couch is coming back home.
“It’s a cool experience to be able to be home and play in front of my family and friends for the first time in a while,” said the righty via telephone this week. “It makes it a little more special because usually during the season, you don’t get to see anybody for a long time. When you get to see your friends, family and familiar faces, it just makes it that much better.”
The journey has been a wild one for the 27-year-old to this point. While pitching in high school for Holy Trinity, it did not appear that Couch was destined to play professionally. He claimed that Major League or college teams never recruited him very highly, despite being named Team MVP and receiving All-County and All-Island honors his senior year. However, one man took notice of what Couch had done and helped pave the way for his future success.
“Adelphi was really the only offer I had [after high school], and Coach [Dom] Scala just saw something in me,” noted Couch. “Once I had that opportunity, it was a no-brainer. I wanted to continue playing in college, and my career just took off from there. He was the only person to see that in me and give me the opportunity. Everything that’s happened to me, I owe it all to Adelphi.”
Couch took the chance and ran with it. In three seasons at Adelphi, he compiled an 18-7 record, a 2.07 ERA, 10 complete games, four shutouts, and 224 strikeouts in 239 innings of work. He immediately entered the radar of several Major League scouts, and the possibility of achieving his lifelong Major League dream no longer seemed out of reach. Following his junior season, Couch had the opportunity to get drafted and begin a career on the professional side of baseball. Sure enough that summer, the moment he dubbed the highlight of his baseball career took place.
“I was actually at Adelphi up in one of the conference rooms hanging out with some teammates, my coach and my parents,” Couch reminisced. “I got a call before it happened talking about the rounds and negotiating. Then it happened, I heard my name and it was awesome. It was a happy time to have my family and coach there and to have the feeling that everything I worked hard for had happened.”
The Red Sox selected the right-hander during the 13th round, and he was able to join an organization full of outstanding prospects. Boston’s farm system had produced several key contributors to their 2004 and 2007 World Series championship teams and was in the midst of cultivating even more for their eventual run to the title in 2013. During his seven seasons with the organization, Couch shared the diamond with the likes of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Steven Wright and many others who would go on to reach the big leagues. Although he never reached the game’s highest level, the experience provided a positive forum for Couch to grow as a player.
“All the guys there were good teammates and friends,” he recalled. “[The Red Sox] treated us like adults and took care of us. They provided a good environment, whether it was the facilities, supplements or training. Everyone was top notch, and it was a great seven years. I’m glad I got to experience that.”
Couch posted some strong seasons in the organization as well. He earned 11 victories in back-to-back seasons with Advanced-A Salem (2012) and Double-A Portland (2013), tossing over 130 innings both years. He also compiled a career-best 2.97 ERA in 18 games (17 starts) with Portland in 2014. That September, the organization promoted him to Triple-A Pawtucket and gave him the opportunity to gain some postseason experience.
Pawtucket earned a spot in the International League playoffs with a 79-65 record during the year and advanced to the Championship Series following a three-game sweep of Syracuse. The finals proved to be a tougher task, as Pawtucket split the first four games with Durham, including a trio of one-run ballgames. In the decisive fifth game, Couch was given the ball with a chance to give Pawtucket their second title in three seasons. He rose to the occasion, firing six and two-thirds innings of shutout baseball and yielding just one hit and two walks while striking out four. The Red Sox won the game 4-1 to claim the championship and give Couch a memory that he will never forget.
“It was pretty cool to have that experience,” he exclaimed. “I had never experienced a playoffs or championship or anything like that in pro ball. That was the first time I got to experience it, and sure enough, we won it all.”
As Couch succeeded, the Red Sox also made it a point to show that he was a highly though of prospect. They sent him to pitch in the Arizona Fall League following the 2013 and 2014 seasons, but the move proved to be costly to both the team and the pitcher. Couch totaled a 5.10 ERA in 18 games (seven starts) over his two stints in Surprise, and his 2015 season was compromised because of the extra work. That year with Pawtucket, he went just 4-10 with a 6.14 ERA, saw his walk total balloon from 22 to 50, and spent time in the disabled list. After the season, he knew the key to finding his form again was rest.
“I knew I just needed some rest and needed to recover and feel healthy,” Couch said. “By the time I was able to shut down and rest [the previous two years], I had about five or six weeks off total before I had to start throwing again. It was a lot of wear and tear, a lot of grinding through injuries and trying to feel 100 percent. I got some rest [after 2015], felt good and got back to doing what I knew I could do.”
Indeed, the stats greatly improved for Couch this past season. He combined for a 10-8 record and a 3.96 ERA with Portland and Pawtucket, lowering his walk total and increasing his strikeouts in the process. Among his 20 starts in 2016 were back-to-back complete game efforts in early July with Portland that led to him being named the Eastern League’s Pitcher of the Week on July 10. It was quite the turnaround for Couch, but despite the improvements, his time with the organization came to an end. Boston granted him free agency in November, and the hurler was now in search of a job.
Couch had developed a relationship with Ducks manager Kevin Baez over the years while growing up on Long Island. Whether in batting cages or giving lessons, the two had forged the initial ground for an eventual partnership. In the midst of the 2016-17 offseason, the possibility finally arose where Couch could come back home to play and where Kevin could add a strong arm to his rotation.
“I was just looking to sign with a team, and then I got a call from the Ducks,” Couch recalled. “I was at a batting cage on Long Island where I saw Kevin Baez, we talked and then the Ducks called. It just kind of worked out from there.”
Despite being in a league that is completely new to him, Couch will have several things to help him transition easily. He already has the pre-existing relationship with his manager, and he will be able to pitch in an environment that he has called home for the majority of his life. While he knows that there will certainly be new challenges, Couch is heading into 2017 with completely positive emotions.
“I’m just going into it with an open mind and the hope that I can get back into a Major League organization,” he noted. “Hopefully, I can one day get to the big leagues; that’s been my goal my whole life, just to pitch in the big leagues. Hopefully, this helps get me there.”
That goal has been the same for nearly every player to put on an Atlantic League uniform. Couch, however, is not letting that be his primary focus. Instead, he wants to take the opportunity to simply enjoy playing the game and let things work themselves out.
“If you focus on that stuff and put too much pressure on it, that stuff never happens,” Couch stated. “For me, honestly, I’m just happy to be playing baseball. I learned [last year] to just sit back, enjoy the moment and just go out there and give it my all. That’s all I’m really looking forward to this year, just going out and being able to play baseball, have some fun and give it my all. It’s just about doing what I know I can do.”
Welcome home, Keith.