With a championship on his shoulders, the Birmingham Barons’ Ryan Kussmaul did not disappoint.
“I mentally prepared myself the night before and knew it would probably come down to me,” Kussmaul said. “That was the most locked in I have ever been in my life for a baseball game.”
Kussmaul, a Fennimore native, pitched 2 2/3 innings and struck out six in game five of the MiLB Southern League Championship Series on Sept. 15.
Birmingham defeated Mobile, 4-2, to earn their first Southern League championship since 2002.
“It is just like you won the World Series,” Kussmaul said. “It is the biggest accomplishment that I have been a part of in my life.
“I knew I was going to pitch quite a bit in that game because we didn’t have much pitching left.”
Birmingham’s Myles Jaye made just his third start at the Double-A level.
“[Myles] went into the game with a 17.18 ERA,” Kussmaul said. “He gave up two runs in the first inning and we thought he might give up a couple more in the second.
“I didn’t see much emotion of the guy. I don’t think he knew the amplitude of the situation he was in.”
Trailing 2-1, the Barons scored three runs in the bottom of the second inning to take the lead.
“It was do or die,” Kussmaul said. “We started off the championship series 2-0 and all we had to do was win one of the next three, but we decided to lose the next two.”
Jaye pitched four scoreless innings before Kussmaul entered the game in the sixth inning.
“I am not a real ‘Johnny-Cheerleader’ on the bench,” Kussmaul said. “I am not usually helping guys out that way.
“Game five was the first time in my life that I got into people’s faces and I told them ‘let’s go.’ Then I went out the next inning and struck out the side.”
The Barons’ Cody Winiarski came on to record the final four outs.
Kussmaul was instrumental in the Barons clinching the North Division Series as well.
In a winner-take-game game five, he pitched three scoreless innings in a 7-4 win over the Tennessee Smokies.
“My manager had been relying on me quite a bit since I came off the disabled list,” Kussmaul said. “I have had him three years now. He was my manager in Venezuela and High-A.
“I knew he knew he would use me as much as possible.”
Kussmaul put his best foot forward for the White Sox during spring training, but began his season in Birmingham.
“I didn’t get mad about it,” he said. “I knew that Birmingham had a new stadium and all I had to do was do well and get called up.
“I am right there, waiting for that phone call. I am next in line. All the guys that talk to me are the minor league coordinators that recommend me to the top dogs.”
Kussmaul appeared in nine games in April, striking out 19 batters. He appeared in nine more games in May and struck out an additional 14 batters.
His first half performance made Kussmaul an easy selection for the 2013 Southern League All-Star team, but Kussmaul suffered a finger injury in June and was sidelined.
“It had been an injury I had been dealing with for about two-and-a-half years,” he said. “I knew it had to get taken care of so I could be back for the playoffs.
“The plan was to get the surgery done and be back for the playoffs.”
The plan encountered a kink when Kussmaul’s first surgery in early June failed.
“It was hard sitting on the bench and watching baseball,” Kussmaul said. “It is not easy watching your team not do well.
“We did not do well the second half. We had a lot of guys be called up and we had to manage with what the lower levels were sending up to us.
“It was really hard to watch and not being able to play.”
Kussmaul returned to action in August.
“I would say it was a real successful season for me,” he said. “The injury wasn’t something that was going to end my career.
“I didn’t go on the disabled list thinking I wouldn’t be able to come back and help the team.”
The Barons were helped by Kussmaul’s 23 appearances in the regular season, in which he struck out 36 and recorded five saves.
Among those following Kussmual’s impressive 2013 season from Fennimore was Lloyd Tarrell. Tarrell is proud to say he has followed Kussmaul’s career from its infancy.
“I watched every game he played Little League with my son Chris on through high school,” he said. “He was always a good pitcher, he had some pop on the ball.
“When he got older, he was the best baseball player, in my opinion, that I have seen play for Fennimore.”
Lloyd and his wife, Paula, listened to Barons games online, including the clinching game five on Sept. 15.
“The announcer was quite excited, as we were,” Lloyd said.
Tarrell and family journeyed to Alabama to visit Kussmaul in June.
“We went right to the stadium,” Tarrell recalled. “I texted Ryan and said, ‘Are you at Regions Field.’ He said, ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘So am I.’
“He came running out across the field and saw us, that was pretty cool. We watched that game and a game the next day before coming home.”
Not only is Tarrell a Kussmaul fan, he is also a White Sox fan, for whom the Barons are an affiliate.
"I have been a baseball fan all my life and a Sox fan,” he said. “I was a Sox fan before the braves came to Milwaukee.
“I inherited that from my family.”
What would Tarrell think of Kussmaul joining the White Sox in the big leagues?
“That would be nice,” he said. “It would be a shorter drive to Chicago than Birmingham.
“He has done everything he has been asked to do. Somebody has got to be paying attention and get him a shot.”
Count Kussmaul’s manager, Julio Vinas, among those paying attention.
“Absolutely, I think he’ll pitch in the big leagues,” Vinas told MiLB.com’s Jake Steiner following Kussmaul’s game five performance. “He has a funky delivery, three-quarters from a low slot. He has a lot of movement on his fastball. He probably fed them 90-95 percent fastballs today.
“He was blowing it by them with good sink. He has an erratic delivery, which really throws hitters off. They don’t take good swings off his fastball, which is a plus for him.”
Kussmaul’s shot may be coming this offseason.
MLB teams must protect players on their 40-man rosters within three or four years of their original signing. Those left unprotected are available to all other teams as Rule 5 picks.
Players who were 18 or younger on June 5 preceding the signing of their first contract must be protected after four minor league seasons. Players 19 and older must be protected after three seasons.
Kussmaul signed a free agent contract with the White Sox on July 14, 2010.
“This is a big year,” Kussmaul explained. “This is my protection year. This is the year the White Sox decide whether or not to put me on their 40-man roster.
“If they do that, I get an invite to spring training and get a chance to make the team out of spring training. But if they don’t, they leave me out in the world for all other MLB teams to draft me and give me a chance.”
The White Sox will make their decision prior to the Baseball Winter Meetings, scheduled for Dec. 9-12. Kussmaul’s play in 2012 and 2013 will give them plenty to ponder.
“Basically, I wanted to make it a hard decision for them,” Kussmaul said. “They have nothing invested in me. I am making it a tough decision for them.
“This is a business. If another team is going to give me a shot to play in the bigs, you are damn right I am going to take that shot.”
Kussmaul is grateful for the support he continues to receive from his hometown.
“I know that everyone back home is supportive,” he said. “I enjoy them following me. A lot of those people are my friends and family.
“Coming from a small community, you claim friends as family.”
Among his many friends is his childhood best friend, Derek Freymiller.
“Watching Ryan have this success is fascinating, but I can honestly say it isn’t surprising,” Freymiller said. “He has always been a pure athlete and he was good at everything even from childhood.
“Ryan could always throw harder, run faster and jump higher. But baseball was different. When he played baseball he was leagues beyond anyone that played against him. I remember in Little League having to hit against him was the only thing I ever dreaded.”
Kussmaul can quickly recall spending time as a youngster with Freymiller, or dinners at the Tarrell house, or the help of a mentor.
“Growing up I didn’t have much support,” he recalled. “I grabbed a hold of the people that wanted to help and those are the people I am grateful for to this day.
“A big one is Dan Bredeson. Before he was principal he took me under his wing for a little bit. He knew a lot of stuff was going on in my life. He got me going in basketball and he did a really good job for me.
“That guy helped me out a lot. He never complained about a thing. He is a very strong man. He did a really good thing for me.”
With the 2013 season behind him, Kussmaul will set his sights on the Dominican Winter League.
"I play winter ball to work on things, as far as getting better, so I can make it to Chicago,” he said. “This year was supposed to be a year I would be in Chicago but I got hurt.”
As quickly as the MiLB postseason came and went, the calendar will soon turn to 2014, which very well may be the year of Ryan Kussmaul.
“I really hope this coming year will be my year,” he said. “You will see me pitching in Chicago or another team in the big leagues.
“Sooner or later, once this story turns into a happy ending and I’ve made it, I hope to write a book and do a movie about it all.”