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2017 Penn grad Jake Cousins became the first Penn alum to play in the MLB since Mark DeRosa in 2013 and the first Penn alum to pitch in the MLB since Steven Thomas Adkins in 1990. Credit: Nick Buchta

At about 11 p.m. on June 20, 2021, Nashville Sounds relief pitcher Jake Cousins had just finished a Triple-A game in Gwinnett County, Ga. against the Gwinnett Stripers and was heading to the locker room to use the bathroom.

He was quickly interrupted, though, by Sounds pitching coach Jim Henderson, who told him to head to the manager’s office once he was done. So, after using the bathroom, Cousins ventured over to Sounds manager Rick Sweet’s office, where good news was in store.

“[He] just said, ‘Hey man, you’re going to the big leagues,’” Cousins said. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And he’s like ‘No man, I’m not kidding you.’ So it was him and Jim Henderson, and he just said, ‘Hey, you got a flight tomorrow morning. You’re going to Phoenix.’ And yeah, I mean, I was speechless.”

Cousins was off to go play for the Milwaukee Brewers, and after hugging all his teammates and telling his wife and family the good news, he got on a flight the next morning to Phoenix, as the Brewers were facing off against the Arizona Diamondbacks that Monday.

Before his call-up to the MLB, however, Cousins was a pitcher for Penn from 2014-2017. During his sophomore season, Cousins earned a second team All-Ivy selection, and after a senior season in which he was arguably the best pitcher on the roster, he was unanimously selected first team All-Ivy. 

He finished his Quaker career with 20 wins, the third most of any pitcher in Penn baseball history.

Looking back on his time with the program, Cousins credits the team for unlocking his potential and for even seeing that he had potential in the first place.

“I think it’s just a testament to the coaching staff that recruited me to go there in the first place,” Cousins said. “I mean I wasn’t highly sought after by any means, so a coaching staff that’s able to see potential and then able to get that potential out of you says a lot. Josh Schwartz, pitching coach, did a great job, and he and I have a great relationship.

“Just having all the experiences and lessons I’ve learned while I was at Penn has definitely helped me out today.”

After graduating from Penn, Cousins was selected by the Washington Nationals in the 20th round of the 2017 MLB Draft.

His time with the Nationals was fairly short-lived due to a series of arm injuries that caused him to not play as much as he needed to. Cousins was released during spring training in 2019, and at that point, he thought that that might have been the end of his professional baseball career.

“I was pretty close to hanging it up,” Cousins said, “but my family, my wife, just kept telling me, ‘Hey let’s try and play this last year out and at least end on a good note, not hurt.’”

Included in that familial chorus of encouragement was someone who’s had professional sports success of his own, his cousin Kirk Cousins, who is a starting NFL quarterback.

“In 20 years, when you look back at your life,” Kirk Cousins said to his cousin at the time, “are you gonna wish that you quit baseball earlier?”

So, with the support of his family, Cousins gave it another go, playing for the Schaumburg Boomers in the Frontier League and then for Arizona and Wisconsin in the lower levels of the minor leagues.

Once COVID-19 hit, Cousins ended up joining the Chicago Dogs in the American Association, which is an independent baseball league. While with the Dogs, he got to play with MLB players for the first time, and his success at that level proved that he could compete against high-level talent.

From there, Cousins got a spring training invite from the Brewers and quickly catapulted the ranks of the Brewers’ minor league system.

“This year was crazy,” Cousins said. “We were in each spot for about three weeks, and it was a lot of fun. Someone comes and taps on your shoulder and tells you to go to the manager’s office, and then you get on a plane the next day. 

"So it’s a lot of just enjoying where you’re at and just acting like you’re gonna be there for the full season and anything else is a positive.”

On top of injuries being less of a factor, Cousins attributes a freshened perspective to his improvement in play since his time with the Nationals organization.

“The thing I learned was that I tried to control a lot of stuff when I was with the Nationals, and trying to control your life through baseball is insane,” Cousins said. “You’re not gonna be able to control anything, so I just learned to kind of let all that go and try to just control what things I can control and be where my feet are and just enjoy the process. 

"It just made everything a lot lighter, and I started enjoying baseball more and just went along for the ride, and luckily, it worked out.”

All of his success led up to the big moment in late June when he received the news that he’d be pitching in the big leagues.

In doing so, Cousins became the first Penn alumnus to play in the MLB since Mark DeRosa in 2013 and the first Penn alumnus to pitch in the MLB since Steven Thomas Adkins in 1990.

Going into his first game with the Brewers on June 21, Cousins didn’t expect to see any game action after his new manager Craig Counsell said that they wouldn’t throw him into the fire right away.

However, after Brewers’ starting pitcher Brett Anderson went down with a minor knee injury in the second inning, Cousins knew he was going to have to throw that night.

“That’s when I really got nervous because you don’t really get nervous up until then because you never know if you’re gonna throw or not, but once our starter went down, that’s when the nerves came,” Cousins said. “It’s very surreal. It’s one of those things where it happens so fast that I didn’t really have a chance to think about it, which is a good thing in that scenario.”

The rushed entrance into the majors was in fact an effective maneuver, as Cousins entered the game in the sixth inning and pitched two scoreless and hitless innings, striking out five batters.

“It was amazing,” Cousins said. “Afterwards, just being able to sit back and think about what just happened was a dream come true.”

Since his MLB debut, Cousins has continued to excel, pitching 14.1 innings in total and only giving up four hits and zero earned runs during that span.

“A hat tip to our pro scouting staff, finding a guy like this,” Counsell said to “He’s had a nice year. He did enough in a short look in ‘19 to get an invite to Major League camp. Then he went out and pitched really well in the Minor League season. We challenged him in Triple-A and he continued to pitch well and earned his shot here. Guys like this, they’ve got to earn it completely. They’ve got to earn everything they get, and that’s what Jake did to get here.”

Although he’s surrounded by elite-level talent in the Milwaukee pitching staff, which includes two-time NL Reliever of the Year Josh Hader and 2021 Rookie of the Year Devin Williams, the main advice he’s been given has been fairly simple.

“Basically, just everybody’s telling me to stay who you are, you’re here for a reason, you don’t need to try and be different,” Cousins said. “You’ve had success this year for a reason. Keep doing that, and just learn from your mistakes.”

Currently, the Brewers sit at first place in the NL Central with a 67-46 record, meaning Cousins and his team will have a strong chance at the playoffs come October. Cousins was recently sidelined from that effort, though, as he was diagnosed with COVID-19 on July 31 despite his being vaccinated.

As he rejoins the team after getting out of quarantine, Cousins will take part in the Brewers’ stretch run to try and earn a playoff berth, a far ways away from almost calling it quits back just two years ago.

“It’s a lifetime full of work to fulfill a dream, and I wouldn’t change it,” Cousins said. “It’s been a really fun time.”