Greg Mercer, Record staff
KITCHENER — The game’s never done until nine innings are in the books — but when the Kitchener Panthers’ Phil Owen takes the mound, it’s often over a little earlier than that.
As the team’s unofficial rookie closer, he’s thriving in a high-pressure roles late in games and has helped solidify a Panthers bullpen that’s become one of the strongest in the Intercounty Baseball League.
Fans of the Laurier Golden Hawks might recall Owen from his three seasons with Brock University, where he was twice named an Ontario University Athletics all-star. He had four saves in eight appearances for Brock last fall, with ten strikeouts in ten innings, for a miniscule 0.90 earned run average.
So far this season for the Panthers, he’s the owner of a miserly 1.38 earned run average and hasn’t allowed a walk in 13-plus innings of work.
He’s another player recruited to the team by assistant coach Denis Bailey, part of an upgraded bullpen that’s a big reason why the Panthers are 14-4, and half a game out of first place behind Barrie.
Owen says he’s just trying to keep it simple — throw strikes and get batters out.
“This is the highest level of ball I’ve played, but I try to not be intimidated by any of the hitters and just attack guys,” said Owen.
And he’s comfortable pitching in hitter-friendly Jack Couch Park with the game on the line — in fact, he loves it. He says he finds it harder to focus in games where the score isn’t close.
“Balls that have no business getting out just fly out of here,” he said. “But I prefer that pressure... The closer it is, the better I am. I find it harder when we’re up by a bunch.”
Owen has become a key late-innings arm in a group of relievers that have surprised a lot of people around the league, said Bailey, who tried unsuccessfully in the past to recruit the reliever to his previous team, the Burlington Bandits.
“I’ve liked Phil as a pitcher for a long time, and the stars just kind of aligned for him to come here,” he said. “Phil has come in and done what he’s supposed to do, and opened a lot of eyes.”
David Whiteside, the team’s third baseman, said Owen is part of a Panthers pitching corps he thinks is “the best in the league.”
Guys like Owen are a big reason the import cancelled his plans to join an independent league in California last week, and decided stick around in Kitchener for the rest of the season and make a run in the playoffs.
“I was already packed and ready to go. It was a last-minute decision,” he said. “But this feels like the best choice for me.”
The Panthers have a chance to do something special this season, Whiteside said, and the American wanted to be a part of it.
“It’s a different guy who scores for us every game. We always find a spark somewhere,” he said. “We’re finding a different way to win every night.”
The Panthers, in second place in the Intercounty circuit, travel to London Saturday afternoon, before hosting Guelph Sunday at 7 p.m. at Jack Couch Park.