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Spokane Indians reliever Joe Kuzia took the independent road to the Northwest League

Indians reliever Joe Kuzia. (File / SR)
Indians reliever Joe Kuzia. (File / SR)

Shortly after his senior year ended at St. John’s University, Joe Kuzia turned his focus to the 2015 June amateur draft. On draft day, Kuzia listened for his name to be read.

“I thought I had a shot,” the right-handed pitcher said.

His name was never called.

“I was kind of bummed,” Kuzia said. “But it was just what I was handed.”

Kuzia wasn’t ready to end his career at college. Following the draft, his college coach asked Kuzia if he would consider trying out for a team in the Independent League, which is not affiliated with major league clubs.

“I said, ‘Yeah.’ I just wanted to get at least one more go-around,” Kuzia said.

That summer, Kuzia played for the Golden State Grays, a traveling professional team in the Canadian-American Association.

In the Independent League, Kuzia was pitching to players with backgrounds that ranged anywhere between double-A and major-league experience.

“I was against the odds because I was a really young guy,” said Kuzia, who was 21 in his first season out of college. “I felt like I was the small fish in a big pond.”

The following year, Kuzia tried out for the Bridgeport Bluefish, an Independent League team based in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He filled a spot on the roster that was left empty after former Seattle Mariner Endy Chavez, who was playing for Bridgeport not long after he ended his career in Major League Baseball, injured his hamstring in the outfield.

Kuzia appeared in 34 games for the Bluefish that season. Bridgeport eventually released the righty after receiving an influx of older players with much more experience.

Two days later, the New Britain Bees, an independent team in the same Atlantic League as Bridgeport, picked up Kuzia. He stayed with the Bees for the remainder of the 2016 season.

This year, Kuzia finally got his break and signed as a free agent with the Texas Rangers. He is the only player on the Indians’ current roster that was signed out of an Independent League.

“I learned a lot in that league,” Kuzia said. “The competition was just unbelievable.”

“He’s one of our more experienced guys, one of our more composed guys,” Indians manager Matt Hagen said. “You can give him the ball in any situation, any part of the game, like tonight (Friday). It’s never too big for him.”

Hagen called in Kuzia in the 11th inning on Friday night with the score was tied at 2 in hopes that the seasoned righty could keep Vancouver from pulling ahead.

He didn’t disappoint. Kuzia forced an infield grounder and fanned the last two batters to end the inning unharmed.

Spokane’s Matt Whatley followed Kuzia’s strong outing with a lead-off homer in the bottom of the frame, lifting the Spokane Indians to a 3-2 win over the Vancouver Canadians in the third of a four-game Northwest League series.

Kuzia picked up the win (1-1) and has posted a 2.66 ERA and earned two saves in 26 2/3 innings over 15 appearances.

Whatley roped the second pitch of the inning from Canadians relief pitcher Brayden Bouchey (0-1) over the left field fence for his fifth homer of the year. It was the Indians’ second consecutive walk-off win and the sixth walk off this season.

The win pulled the Indians (13-10, 29-32) into first place in the second half NWL North standings, tied with Vancouver (13-10, 34-27) and the Tri-City Dust Devils (13-10, 33-28).

“It was definitely a good feeling,” Whatley said of his first career home run walk off. “Especially to get another win and get us back in first place.”

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