The tattoo under Angels pitcher Michael Kohn's left wrist is only a year old, but it represents perseverance he has displayed much longer.
It reads "never."
"Never back down, never give in," Kohn said.
Not after surgery he underwent in high school to remove bone spurs in his throwing elbow scared off major-college recruiters. Not after his career as a first baseman fizzled. Not after Tommy John surgery in April 2012 stalled his budding major league career.
"It's always been my philosophy," he said of the tattoo.
Kohn, 27, rebounded from surgery to become one of the Angels' most consistent relievers this season. He is 1-0 with a 2.39 earned-run average and 26 strikeouts in 261/3 innings. Kohn has given up runs in only six of 30 appearances, proving to Manager Mike Scioscia that he can be trusted in late-inning situations.
"There's been a noticeable improvement in his stuff, in particular his velocity," Scioscia said. "He's able to spin his slider better now that he's healthy. He's done a great job in whatever situation we put him in."
Kohn didn't start to train as a pitcher until the fall before his senior season at the College of Charleston, and even then a shoulder injury kept him off the mound for two months and limited him to 13 innings. But he was spotted by an unofficial Angels scout.
Christal Kotchman, a Charleston student and daughter of former Angels scout Tom Kotchman, told her father about a hard-throwing infielder turned closer. Tom went out and liked what he saw, and so did Chris McAlpin, the Angels' cross-checker for the region.
Christal became a fixture at practices, clocking Kohn's pitches and phoning the speeds to her father for a $100 finder's fee.
The Angels selected Kohn in the 13th round of the 2008 draft.
"There's room for those types of players because if it clicks, it could click pretty good," Tom Kotchman said. "And it ended up clicking."
After transferring to Charleston before his junior year, Kohn lost his job as the starting first baseman halfway through his first season. That's when he approached pitching coach Scott Foxhall with an idea.
"He said, 'Coach, I can pitch,' " Foxhall said, "and I went, 'Sure you can, Mike.' Just like every other coach says to every other player; all the pitchers think they can hit and all the hitters think they can pitch."
Kohn finished the year as a utility man but made the transition to pitching the next fall.
The first time Kohn pitched to live batters in a simulated game, Foxhall said he and Coach John Pawlowski stood behind the plate with a radar gun. Foxhall told Pawlowski to expect 88 to 91 mph.
Kohn's first pitch: a 96-mph fastball for a strike. And he continued to hit 94 to 97 mph.
His command wavered at times, but his flashes of dominance were electrifying, Foxhall said.
"My first time pitching, it could be 96 at your face or 96 on the black paint," Kohn said. "I didn't really know where it was going."
Later in the season, he shocked another batch of scouts.
"All 30 teams were there and I think one guy had his radar gun up because I was a first baseman-third baseman," Kohn said. "Like, 'What is he doing on the mound?' I think the first pitch out of my hand was 96." There were a lot more radar guns pointed after that.
That was the day Kohn realized he was a pitcher. Sure, he sneaked into the batting cages at Rookie League Orem, Utah, before being reprimanded, but he has grown comfortable with the switch over time.
"It was weird for a while, but now I just stick to hitting golf balls," Kohn said.
He debuted for the Angels in 2010, after only one full season in Class A, and was 2-0 with a 2.11 ERA in 24 games. Kohn still worked through command problems — he said he asked his catcher to set up in the middle for each pitch and pretend wherever he caught it was on target — but his velocity was overwhelming.
However, the next season his velocity waned and Kohn struggled with a 7.30 ERA in 14 games and he did most of his pitching in triple A before doctors suggested he undergo a surgery they said he should have gotten in high school.
He didn't pitch in 2012 but now is back showing the kind of promise he displayed during his rookie season. Coming in with runners on first and second and the score tied, 1-1, in the eighth inning of a recent game against the Detroit Tigers, Kohn struck out All-Stars Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera to end the inning.
Eight of his nine pitches were fastballs, but he's working on a slider and changeup.
And every time he starts into his windup, the mantra that has carried him through so much peers out from under the heel of his glove: Never.
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