Washington Huskies pitcher Jeff Brigham is what you might call a late-blooming sensation.
The right-hander from Federal Way had no draft offers after his 2010 graduation from Thomas Jefferson High School. Last month, he was not ranked among college baseball’s top 100 junior prospects.
But when the Huskies took the field Saturday at Cheney Stadium for the first game of a doubleheader against UC Davis, the most attentive of the estimated 200 spectators on hand were the 20 or so major league scouts taking notes in their box seats behind the plate.
Even though Brigham was on a strict pitch count and limited to a repertoire that ran the gamut from A to B — two-seam fastballs setting up the occasional four-seam fastball — he showed why his draft stock has soared from off the scouts’ charts to, well, off the charts. With polish and poise, Brigham provided a glimpse of the nuanced pitcher he’ll be once the training wheels are taken off.
Hitting is timing, and pitching is upsetting timing, the great Warren Spahn once explained.
True, very true, unless the pitcher has been forced to sit out a full season after learning that 95 percent of his elbow tendon was torn. Brigham underwent Tommy John surgery a year and a half ago. The ligament replacement operation renewed Brigham’s velocity and restored his confidence.
“To be honest, I was a little bit relieved when I got the news that I’d have to be operated on,” Brigham said. “It was devastating
and a little bit scary, but at the same time I found out I wasn’t faking it. I’d been pitching with pain, and I figured something was wrong, but I didn’t know what was wrong. I was starting to doubt whether I was tough enough to make it as a pitcher. Just having the knowledge that I really was injured — that it wasn’t my imagination — made me feel good, in a kind of bittersweet way.”
Brigham opened 2014 with a pair of breakout performances. On Feb. 15 at Texas State — his first start in 21 months — he worked five innings, allowing only a solo homer. A week later, during the Pac-12/Big Ten conference tournament in Surprise, Ariz., he limited Michigan State to two hits and an earned run in seven innings.
Surprise is the spring training home of the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers, and is surrounded by other Cactus League camps. More than 50 scouts — and several general managers — were in the stands to watch Brigham deliver fastballs routinely clocked between 92 and 96 mph. One reached 98.
Still, the Huskies are exercising Brigham with caution. Coach Lindsay Meggs limited him to 85 pitches Saturday, trusting that the damp air of a 44-degree afternoon — along with the tall grass of the Cheney Stadium infield — would compensate for hitters able to dial in on fastballs followed by more fastballs.
“I ended up hitting the pitch count right on the money,” Brigham said. “I threw 85 pitches, and 83 of them were fastballs. The others were a slider that went for a base hit and a change-up I left down in the zone. Basically, I just wanted to pound the strike zone with two-seamers, and let my infielders go to work for me.”
Brigham finished with a six-inning no-decision in the 2-1 victory — the Huskies, en route to a doubleheader sweep, took advantage of an outfield error in the bottom of the ninth to win — preserving his unquestioned status as staff ace. He’s 2-0 with a 1.50 earned-run average, and you can only wonder what those numbers will look like once he’s given the green light to throw anything more disruptive to hitters than fastballs with a natural sink.
For now, Brigham will use off-day bullpen sessions with pitching coach Jason Kelly to expand his arsenal.
“I’ll need some different pitches when the conference season rolls around,” said Brigham, whose team opens Pac-12 play at Arizona State on March 14. A week later, the Huskies will christen their newly renovated ballpark with a three-game series against Arizona. The construction project required UW to relocate its home games against UC Davis to Cheney Stadium.
Don’t doubt Brigham’s ability to answer the challenge of putting a spin on a breaking ball, or rearranging the grip on his fastball so that it dawdles toward the plate as a change-up. He’s regarded as the baseball team’s best all-around athlete, and despite his unimposing physique — he’s listed at 6-feet, 183 pounds — Brigham might the best all-around athlete on campus.
Brigham averaged 16.9 points a game as a senior shooting guard for Jefferson’s basketball team, his first varsity season. He was a standout soccer player as a kid and ran cross country for the Raiders before deciding to concentrate on less exhaustive pursuits.
For instance, golf. Brigham plays the game only casually, because — hello — it’s fun. And yet he carded back-to-back rounds in the 70s at the West Central District high school tournament, well under the cut for the state tournament. But golf can also be frustrating, and when Brigham missed a gimme 1 foot from the cup on the back side, and then a 3-footer for a birdie par, and then went out of bounds with consecutive tee shots, he stopped keeping score around the time he rallied to salvage the round with three birdies.
Oops. Disqualified by scorecard discrepancy.
“I was a little intimidated during a stretch of about four or five holes,” Brigham said. “We’ve all been there.”
Uh, no, not all of us have been there. Some of us are eagerly awaiting the golf-career milestone of turning in a card under three digits.
Golf, in any case, is on the back burner for Brigham. The most conspicuous of his many talents is throwing a baseball. He throws it with the grace and ease of a prospect destined to be chosen in an early round of the June draft.
“Playing pro baseball has always been my dream,” said Brigham, another beneficiary of the medical miracle known as Tommy John surgery, the gift that keeps on firstname.lastname@example.org