By Jake Eisenberg
Leading by one run in the eighth inning against top-seed South Carolina, Maryland head coach John Szefc called upon his trusted closer to get the Terrapins out of a jam.
Kevin Mooney walked to the mound with the tying run on second base and one out. In typical fashion, the then-sophomore took the top of his cleat and wiped the rubber clean. Then, he promptly hit the first batter faced. He got the next batter to ground into a fielder’s choice, leaving runners at the corners with two away.
He fell behind the ensuing hitter, leftfielder Gene Cone, 3-0, not trying to give him anything to hit. Then, after a swinging strike and a foul ball, the count drew full.
“We called a 3-2 curveball in the dirt,” former Terps catcher Kevin Martir said.
The 6’1” closer delivered. Cone swung and missed, and Martir blocked the ball and threw to first to retire the side. The Terps went on to win, 4-3, and defeated the Gamecocks the following night as well to secure the first NCAA regional title in program history.
Just over a year later, the former Terps closer was drafted in the 15th round of the 2015 MLB Draft by the Washington Nationals.
. . .
When Mooney’s name was called on the third day of the draft, he wasn’t glued to the live stream. He watched the first two days with teammates, friends and family at Looney’s Pub, and watched as teammates second baseman Brandon Lowe, pitcher Alex Robinson, outfielder LaMonte Wade and pitcher Jake Drossner were selected.
Mooney, a junior at the time, had the option to return to College Park for a final season. Prior to the draft, he decided with his family and advisor that unless a team offered at least a certain amount of money and allowed him to return to the university to finish his degree, he would choose to come back to the university.
So, after day two of the draft, Mooney was indifferent, and had come to terms with not being drafted and returning to the Terps for another year. But, he was still on the radar of all but a few of the major league teams, including the Nationals, who began scouting him the summer after his freshman year, when Mooney played for the Falmouth Commodores in the Cape Cod League.
“I liked his curveball; I like how he threw strikes,“ John Malzone, an area scout for the Nationals who supervises the northeast region, said. “I like how he wanted the ball and was a competitor, and I think in professional baseball, you need guys like that. You’re going to fail a lot in professional baseball and you want guys who are going to get right back out there and try and get better.”
. . .
The first baseball glove Greg Mooney gave his son was meant for a left-hander. Greg, a left-hander himself who pitched collegiately for one year with Towson State University (now Towson), hoped Kevin might be left-handed as well.
“He shoved it on my right hand, put a little soft baseball in my left hand and tried to make me be a lefty,” Kevin Mooney said. “The first thing I did was put the ball down, put my glove on my other hand and throw it right-handed. “
It wasn’t as if Greg was trying to force his son to be left-handed, though, Greg said. It was just wishful thinking, as lefties are considered more valuable due to the abundance of right-handers.
Greg was his son’s coach throughout his youth baseball years, coaching all of his travel teams until Mooney’s junior year of high school. The two found themselves, day-in and day-out, traveling to the nearby field in his hometown of Forest Hill, Md., to practice.
“We both enjoyed it, and it became normal very early on to do homework and then go to the field and throw,” Greg said. “There were many, many hot, rainy, and cold days—including holidays—both in-season and in the off-season when we looked around and saw nobody else working on baseball but us. Those were the days I knew he was getting ahead of the competition.”
. . .
On the third day of the draft, Lowe, who broke his fibula rounding first base in the Terps’ final game of the season, asked Mooney to help him pack up his things in the team clubhouse.
“Right before Lowe and I had left for the locker room, I got a call from my advisor, who said he just talked to the [Cincinnati] Reds,” Mooney said. “He said, ‘I talked to the Reds, we got the amount that you want, you’ll be able to go back to school and finish and graduate. Expect to hear from the Reds in thirty minutes.”
Entering the locker room, the two found then-sophomore pitcher Mike Shawaryn packing up his things as well, as he was getting ready to play for Team USA over the summer. Shawaryn had the online stream of day three of the draft open on his computer, but Mooney wasn’t really paying attention.
“I was just waiting for my phone to ring,” Mooney said. “Shawaryn just looks up and goes, ‘Dude, you just got drafted. The Nationals just picked you in the 15th round.’”
Mooney might not have been watching, but his father, with whom he’d practiced with nearly every day of his childhood, certainly was. In fact, Greg Mooney has a screenshot of his son’s name on the draft tracker saved to the desktop of his computer.
“As his father, it was a bit stressful, but seeing his name pop up and getting that call was certainly one of my proudest moments,” he said.
. . .
Mooney was a two-sport athlete growing up, playing baseball and soccer. But, after making the varsity baseball team at North Harford High School as a freshman, Mooney began playing fall baseball his sophomore year, spelling the end to his days on the competitive soccer field. Baseball became a year-round endeavor, and focus turned toward the prospect of collegiate baseball.
It was then—during Mooney’s sophomore year—that his father began recording video of him. Originally, the videos were destined for YouTube to show out-of-state college coaches, but it soon became a learning tool as well, as Mooney and his father would sit down and compare it with the videos the two watched of professional pitchers when Mooney was younger, focusing on mechanics.
While the two examined a variety of pitchers, the main focus was Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan because of his status as a power pitcher and his longevity, not to mention he was Greg’s boyhood idol.
But, while Ryan was famous for his flamethrower fastballs, what separated Mooney was his curveball.
. . .
Mooney learned how to throw a curveball for the first time when he was eleven years old—starting slowly, mostly focusing on the grip and the release point his father showed him. By the time he reached high school, he felt more and more comfortable throwing it for a strike and more confident that batters wouldn’t be able to handle it.
Upon arriving at Maryland, the curveball was fully entrenched in his arsenal. The pitch had a tight spin and a traditional “12-6” vertical break, movement that’s more difficult to pick up than that of a pitch moving laterally.
“It’s a very traditional 12-6 curveball which we don’t really see much anymore in college baseball,” Rob Galligan, a redshirt senior reliever, said. “[We see] more of a slider or curve, if anything, an 11-5, but nobody really throws a 12-6, especially not like that.”
Galligan and Mooney were throwing partners during this past season, and would work occasionally work on each other’s curveballs. It became Mooney’s “out” pitch, to the degree that with two strikes and two outs, he could tell when it was strike three and would start taking steps toward the dugout.
“When it’s halfway to the plate, I can tell, ‘O.K., this is going to be a strike,’ Mooney said. “Knowing, ‘I got this guy.’ I know his knees are buckled; he’s going to flinch back a little bit.
Despite entering Maryland as a starter, Mooney slid comfortably into the closer role, notching nine saves his freshman year. The following season, he tallied 13, tying the single-season program record set by Brett Cecil, now a closer for the Toronto Blue Jays. That season also brought his career total to 22, one shy of Cecil’s career record.
Mooney broke Cecil’s record early on in 2015, earning the save in a 12-9 win over Minnesota on March 21. But, he wouldn’t stop there. Entering the 2015 postseason, Mooney had just five saves on the year.
The Terps won six games in the 2015 postseason, and Mooney earned the save in every one, striking out the final batter in five of them, each with the curve.
“Even if you knew it was coming, you might not hit it,” Martir, now a catcher in the Houston Astros’ organization, said. “If you do, you got pretty lucky.”
The six postseason saves, including two against top-ranked UCLA in the Terps’ second straight NCAA regional win, brought Mooney to his career total—and new program record—of 33, the same as his jersey number.
. . .
Today, Mooney is back on campus—a month away from graduating from this university with a degree in Geographic Information Systems. He’ll graduate with honors, and in just seven semesters, thanks to taking classes over winter and summer breaks.
This semester, Mooney is taking six classes—three of which have labs—good for 16 credits, all while working in an offseason schedule in preparation for the upcoming minor league season. Last year, he was with the Auburn Doubledays, a Single-A Short Season team, but hopes to find himself in Hagerstown, the home of the Nationals Single-A club, soon.
Upon graduation in December, just in case, he’ll have a fallback plan. But, as long as there’s a shot at the major leagues, it won’t matter.
“You’re there because there’s that little chance, “ he said. “The little kid in you is holding on to the tiny little bit of a chance or little glimpse of the major leagues. “
With already one season of minor league baseball under his belt, the Maryland native is a step closer.
“The light just got a little bit brighter,” Mooney said.