Elmont resident Keith Couch began playing baseball in his backyard when he was 3, and has played Little League, travel and school ball at Holy Trinity High and Adelphi University. He has spent the last seven seasons in the minor leagues.
Couch, 27, is continuing to pursue his dream of playing in the major leagues with the Long Island Ducks, a team in the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. The Ducks and the other seven teams in the league have had many players sign with teams at baseball's highest level.
A right-handed pitcher who has four pitches in his arsenal - fastball, slider, curveball and a changeup — Couch is coming back after having bone chips removed from his right elbow last year — an injury that forced him to miss his last start of the season at Triple-A Pawtucket in the Boston Red Sox organization. He split the season with Double-A Portland and Pawtucket, and combined for a 10-8 record in 22 games (20 starts) and three complete games with a 3.96 earned run average.
"This was supposed to be my free agent year, so I thought I would be able to have an opportunity to pick somewhere else to play and finally make a little bit of money; my only contract is tough and it just didn't happen because of the surgery or what not," Couch said as he sat in the dugout at Bethpage Ballpark in Central Islip. "So this is an opportunity to be home, and say things don't work out. I'm close to home where I could transition into real life, and if things work out and I get picked up, it's awesome as well. It's what I want, it's why I'm here. I'm young; you only get this to do this for so long."
Dom Scala, coach of the Adelphi Panthers baseball team, recruited Couch. According to Couch, Scala was the only college coach to recruit him. Other schools paid for that, as Couch — who showed Scala that he was articulate and polite off the field — used what Scala called "an above-average curve ball" and a strike-to-ball ratio of 75 percent to post an overall 18-7 mark, an ERA of 2.07 with 10 complete games in three seasons. He was named the team's Most Valuable Player in 2010.
"He is sticking with it because he had a taste of the big leagues in spring training a few years back and had success [one win, one save]," said Scala, a former major leaguer who was the bullpen catcher for the 1978 World Champion Yankees. "He also pitched in a Triple-A championship game in 2015 [after] being called up. He [pitched] 6 2/3 innings of scoreless ball to win the championship. Some of those guys are in the big leagues now."
Couch said he believes his growth as a pitcher is part of a maturation process that began in college, with Adelphi's weightlifting regimen, and continues to this day as he learns more about his craft.
It's "learning how to pitch. It's not just what you see on TV; there's a mindset. There's a thought process. It's a chess match," he said. "You're setting up two, three pitches down the line, reading swings, stuff like that. That's something I didn't really do well, or kind of just hauled back and threw when I was younger. Now I kind of learned to pitch more, just the finer things about baseball."
First-year pitching coach Billy Horn said he likes what he sees from Couch, who is penciled in to be the Ducks' third starter in the rotation. "I like his presence; he knows what he's doing," Horn said. "He has a nice two-seam fastball, a curveball, a changeup he could throw to both righties and lefties, and he throws in the 91 to 93-mile-per-hour range."
Being home and playing in front of family and friends is "cool," Couch said, but his goal is to reach the major leagues. Two seasons ago, Rich Hill was on the mound for the Ducks. After two games, he was picked up by the Red Sox. He now pitches for the Los Angeles Dodgers and has a three-year contract for $48 million.
"I'm excited to go back out there and show them I'm ready to play," Couch said. "Personally, just to show them that I'm back to myself, healthy. I never did badly in minor league baseball, except for one season that was injury-related. Other than that I've always done well. I want to go out there and have that inner peace that I did well."