FORREST KOUMAS found the mountaintop of college baseball. He also found the valley. Now, Koumas is closing his collegiate career in the flatlands as the ace of the USC Aiken pitching staff.
The Grateful Dead surely had Koumas and his baseball career in mind when the group released its 1977 album “What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been.”
After two surgeries on his elbow, Koumas is close to regaining the form that made him a standout right-hander as a freshman for the 2011 national champions at South Carolina. Over his past 13 appearances for USC Aiken, Koumas is 4-1 with a 3.71 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 432/3 innings.
“He’s an older guy. You don’t have to say too much to a guy like that,” says Nolan Belcher, USC Aiken’s pitching coach and a teammate of Koumas for three seasons at USC.
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“He’s pitched on the national stage,” Belcher says. “He’s pitched in national championship games. There’s not much I’m going to tell him that he doesn’t already know. You just kind of let him do his thing.”
Koumas did his thing for USC during the 2011 season like few freshmen pitchers nationally, joining junior Michael Roth and sophomore Colby Holmes in the weekend starting rotation. In his first three SEC starts – against Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee – Koumas won two games while allowing one earned run over 192/3 innings.
Koumas finished that season with a 6-1 record with a 2.96 ERA. At the College World Series, he started the Championship Series opening game, allowing one run on three hits over 52/3 innings without getting a decision.
“Forty thousand people. Eighteen years old. It’s a little different,” Koumas says of the Omaha, Neb., experience. “You feel like you’re on top of the world. It’s a long way for a guy coming from a town with one stoplight in front of 40,000, live TV, everyone watching.”
Koumas was a highly touted recruit out of Lugoff-Elgin High, where he was the 2010 South Carolina Class 3A player of the year. So, few were surprised by his standout freshman season at USC. There was every reason to believe Koumas was on his way to an All-American career.
At 5-foot-10, Koumas pitched at 200 pounds in high school, and his weight admittedly got away from him in college. He eventually climbed close to 240 pounds. Then, in his first SEC appearance of his sophomore season, Koumas walked the only Kentucky batter he faced. Something did not feel right in his elbow. He had a broken bone. He pitched through the pain the remainder of that season and had a four-inch screw inserted into his right arm to set the elbow back in place.
The pain in his elbow persisted through a junior season that included 10 appearances and an 8.35 ERA. The last of those appearances came when USC led Liberty 19-0 in the ninth inning of a winner’s bracket game of the Columbia Regional. Koumas was called from the bullpen to get the final three outs.
Instead, he allowed two walks, a single and a three-run homer before being removed from the game. His walk from the mound to the dugout as a shell of his old self was as sad a scene as any among the partisan USC crowd of 7,800 had perhaps ever witnessed.
“It was pretty tough,” Koumas says.
Two days later, Koumas had the screw removed from his elbow, and Tommy John surgery soon followed. He spent all of the 2014 season rehabilitating his elbow, and faced the prospect of not fitting into USC’s plans this season.
“Having one more shot, one last year, I thought it would be best to see as many innings as I could and, hopefully, get a shot at pro ball,” says Koumas, who, after talking to Belcher, believed USC Aiken offered that opportunity.
His first five starts for USC Aiken meant ridding himself of rustiness, and his 1-1 record with an 8.41 ERA attested to that. He rebounded to fire a three-hit shutout with one walk and 18 strikeouts in a complete-game victory over Georgia Southwestern, and has been a steady presence in the Pacers’ rotation since, according to Belcher.
Belcher says the mainstay slider that made Koumas so effective at USC is back. So, too, is a fastball that sits anywhere from 88 to 93 mph. His weight is down to 225 pounds.
Now the coach and his pupil are hopeful that a major-league scout will notice. Perhaps some team will take a late-round flyer in the upcoming major-league draft on a pitcher who carries with him a suitcase full of experiences, both at the top and the bottom of college baseball.