When the Philadelphia Phillies announced their seventh-round choice on Monday’s second day of the Major League Baseball draft, the player didn’t come from a baseball powerhouse.
With pick No. 205, the Phillies selected right-handed pitcher Christian McGowan out of Eastern Oklahoma State, a junior college in Wilburton, Oklahoma, which doesn’t see too many of its players drafted.
But in McGowan’s case, he decided prior to the season the JUCO route would provide a better path into professional baseball than NCAA Division I baseball. There must’ve been some truth in that, as McGowan became the first player drafted out of Eastern Oklahoma State since outfielder Tristan Clarke was taken by the Washington Nationals in the 30th round in 2016 (he didn’t sign) and the program’s highest pick since the San Francisco Giants selected pitcher David Horan in the seventh round in 1988.
McGowan had been slated to transfer from the junior college and play for Kansas State in 2021. However, the 21-year-old changed course just before last fall’s semester, opting to decommit from K-State and rejoin the Eastern Oklahoma State Mountaineers for one last season.
“It was the best decision for me,” he told Phillies Nation by phone on Tuesday, “just because [COVID-19] was going on and nobody knew what would happen. At the time, D-I baseball was shut down and JUCO was still having games and stuff.”
McGowan caught the attention of pro scouts while pitching in the Northwoods League in the summer of 2020. He had just finished an abbreviated second season at junior college, and conventional wisdom said the right-hander could build off his strong summer at Kansas State, where more scouts could see him throw on the larger stage.
The pandemic threw a wrench in those plans. Division I teams had many restrictions and limits on gathering before the start of the 2020-2021 school year, while junior college programs were participating in fall season activities.
McGowan still had another year of eligibility at junior college since the 2020 season was cut short. So, with the uncertainty around the upcoming NCAA season, he made the call last August to return for a third season.
“I needed to basically get seen more and play more,” McGowan said. “And the best chance for me to do that was at Eastern Oklahoma State.”
Some players might have been discouraged by missing out on the Division I experience — the top-notch training facilities, immaculate fields and charter flights. That was never really McGowan’s style anyway.
“Man, I throw hay bales on a trailer,” he said. “I put sacks of feed over my head to feed cattle. I don’t need the best stuff to become the best. And I mean that. If I need to go pour some concrete, I’m working just as much as they are doing those nice dumbbells that are oiled down and really nice and polished.”
McGowan is a native of Bokchito, an Oklahoman town of about 700 people, and the son of Stephanie Carlton and Chris McGowan, a 1989 All-American track star at Oklahoma State and former four-year professional.
“I’m from a small town,” the younger McGowan said. “I graduated from Rock Creek [High School] — 32 kids in my graduation class. You’re going down Main Street, waving at people at the feed store. There’s not even a stoplight in town. I was just a small-town country kid that was always blessed with a good arm. … And so I don’t even care about all that big polished and nice facilities. You still have to do the work. It ain’t gonna do the work for you.”
Small-school junior college always fit his personality. McGowan could hunt and fish on off days or before games he wasn’t pitching — he said he once shot a deer then skinned it in his shower at school. He always enjoyed yelling down the hall to teammates late at night to challenge them to pool and ping pong tournaments.
On the mound he was a competitor, but off the field he was friendly and often found joking around. McGowan rode shotgun in the van Mountaineers head coach Matt Parker drove to games, playing music from his phone that Parker didn’t enjoy before swiping the coach’s travel pillow and falling asleep with the songs still blaring.
Not all of it was super enjoyable. There are no grounds crews at the JUCO level. Players pulled the tarp on and off the infield and took care of other kinds of field maintenance. But even through the worst of it, there was a sense of pride in taking care of the team’s diamond.
“So many tarp pulls we had to do,” McGowan said. “With the draining all the water off the field — man, if your back ain’t hurting after that — it’s a good little workout, let me tell you. You can get a little floatie and float in the water with how much it rained in Wilburton. … But it’s our ballpark, you know? If we’re going to play there, we want it to look nice.”
Bonding with his fellow players over the little things made the junior college experience so right for McGowan.
“The adrenaline, the fun-kick — it was just a good time,” he said. “Eastern was a good home for me and I loved it.”
Most importantly, Eastern Oklahoma State was the place McGowan developed and matured as a pitcher.
“It’s very rare in junior college that I got to be around Christian for three years,” Parker said. “Typically, it’s a one-year or two-year deal then those guys are out. In his case, now I got a chance to kind of watch him grow up.”
McGowan stepped on campus as a freshman with a four-seam fastball around 86 mph. By his sophomore year, he had vastly improved, receiving that Division I offer.
“That guy’s an ultra competitor,” Parker said. “And watching him compete, I think early on in his career, he was just trying to fake it like he was trying to convince himself that he was any good.”
McGowan kept that same mindset and over the years he stopped having to fake it. He came back for a third season with a much further developed repertoire and ranked the top junior college prospect in the nation ahead of the 2021 season by Prep Baseball Report.
“Being that No. 1,” the pitcher said, “they’re all trying to take that spot, and it just makes you want to grind harder. It just makes you want to compete even harder.”
McGowan, now 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, put on weight over the years and currently throws a four-seam fastball that reaches 99 mph, a two-seamer in the mid-90s, a sharp slider and a “go-to” circle changeup. He sports a confidence that’s developed along with his physical abilities.
“When a lefty’s in the box, I’m smiling before I throw it, because I already know he’s going to swing and miss,” he said of the changeup. “Or it’s going to look good to him at least, or he gets fooled, just doesn’t swing and gets lucky.”
Using that arsenal, McGowan went 9-0 for Eastern Oklahoma State in 12 outings with a 2.55 ERA for a Mountaineers team that fell one win short of a junior college World Series appearance.
“To his credit, he came back for that third year and made himself even better, which I think is really hard to do when you’re already pretty good — to be that focused,” Parker said.
McGowan pitched well enough to keep interest from major-league teams, ultimately becoming the first Eastern Oklahoma State player to be drafted under Parker, who took over as head coach in 2018.
The coach credits the right-hander’s small-town, driven background as a key to his success, and he thinks it could help him in the grind that is the minor leagues.
“He’s not a big glitz and glamour — I mean, he’s earned everything that’s coming his way through hard work. I don’t think anything else will change him,” Parker said.
The minors could be coming soon, as McGowan’s side remains confident he’ll be able to reach a deal with the Phillies. But until it’s time to take the field again, he’s enjoying the moment and reflecting on the journey to his selection.
“Instead of taking that big D-I jump, I came back and just basically grinded at the JUCO level,” he said. “We fell short of our [World Series] goal, but when it all comes down to it, I got drafted and I’m making dreams come true. And so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
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