(This story appeared in the December 9th issue of The Outlook, the student run newspaper of Monmouth University).
In 2014, the Baltimore Orioles won the American League East with a 96-66 record and advanced to the American League Championship Series. One of the key members of their bullpen was Brad Brach, who pitched for the Hawks from 2005-2008.
“It was pretty much indescribable, I get chills every time I think about it,” Brach said in a phone interview. “It was just one of those experiences that you want to go through again. Once you get to play in [the postseason], you don’t realize how exciting it is; how into every single pitch every single fan and player is. Getting a little bit of a taste of it last year just makes you want to get back.”
Brach recorded the win in game two of the American League Division Series against the Detroit Tigers in his first career postseason appearance. He recorded the final two outs in the eighth inning and Camden Yards went into a frenzy shortly thereafter in a moment he will always remember.
“One moment I will never forget was in Game Two of the ALDS against Detroit. I got the last couple outs and we go back in the dugout. We were down three runs going into the eighth inning and Delmon Young hit a bases clearing double to put us ahead in that game and it wasn’t like we were major leaguers anymore. It was like we were little leaguers playing for the first time ever. Everyone in the dugout was jumping and screaming like little girls. The whole stadium felt like it was shaking and it was just absolutely incredible.”
As the all-time leader in strikeouts and wins for the Hawks, Brach has enjoyed success coming out of the bullpen for Buck Showalter’s Orioles over the past two seasons after making his major league debut with the San Diego Padres in 2011. Over his five year career, Brach has appeared in 217 regular season games and has posted a 15-10 record, a 3.25 ERA and has struck out 260 batters over 246.1 innings.
The road to the show did not come easy for Brach, however. The right hander came to the University after attending Freehold Township High School and was drafted by San Diego in the 42nd round in 2008, a round that no longer exists in the MLB Draft.
“I’ll never forget talking to Coach Dean Ehehalt my first fall,” Brach said. “We had to do a team assessment where basically we had to tell him where we fit on the team. We gave him a lineup card, a pitching rotation and relievers. I told him that I was in the top three just because I had a lot of drive inside myself and he told me that he didn’t see me in the top five if not the top seven. That was one of those things that drove me every single day from that point on.”
Ehehalt, who will enter his 23rd season as head coach for the Monmouth baseball team in 2016, reflected on how Brach took this as motivation.
“Over the years, I have very rarely told a freshman that he’s the top guy at his spot, just to keep that hunger in them,” Ehehalt said. “Brad used it as a motivating factor as opposed to the ‘me’ or ‘I’ syndrome that some players have. He was drafted in the 42nd round and that’s somebody telling him ‘hey, you’re not a first rounder,’ so he used that as motivation too.”
Brach was a starter during his career at Monmouth, but the Padres placed him in the bullpen right away for their Arizona league rookie ball affiliate.
“I think Brad saw that as an opportunity to just go out and say ‘hey I got one inning, I’m going to go out and dominate.’ And it kind of snowballed and he was really good at it,” Ehehalt said. “I think he had that bullpen mentality even though he was a starter in college. Most guys would view that as a demotion and he looked at it as a great opportunity.”
Now as an established major league reliever, Brach realized that baseball has become a bullpen game and being in that role is very important with the game evolving over the past few seasons.
“I think any baseball fan can realize now that baseball has turned into a bullpen game,” Brach said. “If you don’t have a good bullpen then your team is really going to struggle. Last year [2014 against the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS] we knew we had to score before the fifth or the game was over. I think it’s more of a mental advantage than a physical advantage because when you fall behind, you know you’re in trouble so it’s definitely the way the game is turning. It makes me strive every single day because I want to be like Wade Davis or Kelvin Herrera or one of those type of guys.”
Brach mentioned that his pitching coach while at Monmouth had a big impact on his career.
“In college my pitching coach, Chuck Ristano, made me take my game to a whole new level. He gave me so much confidence in the college game that it catapulted me to get me through pro ball once I got there.”
Ristano served as the Hawks’ pitching coach from 2006-2009 and is now on the coaching staff at The University of Notre Dame.
“To be honest with you I can talk about Brad until your phone runs out of battery,” Ristano said. “Brad was going to do it no matter who he played for. You knew something special was going to happen with Brad just off the way he went about his business. He got drafted in the 42ndround but he did things like a first round draft pick. Once in a while you run into guys who are not going to be denied and that was Brad. He’s a special, special kid from a special, special family. I’m flattered to have been a part of it.”
Ristano recalled the 2007 season in which the Hawks won the Northeast Conference (NEC) championship and appeared in the NCAA Regionals at Arizona State. The Hawks played Mount St. Mary’s in Game 1 of the NEC Tournament when Brach got the start.
“The first batter of the game hit a triple against him. He had a man on third with nobody out and then he got the next three guys out. When Brad came into the dugout I asked him if he was afraid of that hitter because I thought he made some bad pitches. He gave me a look and then went out and threw eight shutout innings and I’m like ‘man this kid is unbelievable.’ Yeah, he’s the best.”
Brach’s climb to where he is today was a steep one, but Ristano never had a doubt he would eventually make it.
“He’s a big leaguer but people who get drafted in the 42nd round just don’t make it to the big leagues. At that point it was the Padres and Brad just gave them no choice. He just kept getting people out and that was his only chance to do it; to be so flawless that he outperformed the 41 guys who were drafted in front of him and everybody else who was drafted in previous years. For him to climb that mountain is unbelievable. Since I saw him pick up a baseball, not a day went by where I didn’t think he was going to make it and that wasn’t crazy because I wasn’t the only one. Dean [Ehehalt] knew it, his teammates knew it. Brad was going to do it and we were just happy to be along for the ride.”
Being drafted as late as he was and coming from a small northeast school in a cold weather environment, Brach realizes that playing in the major leagues is a privilege.
“Whenever people ask me what it’s like I tell them it’s everything that I’ve dreamed of times a thousand,” Brach said. “The opportunity to go out there and wear a major league uniform everyday has been incredible. It’s one of those things that I never take for granted and that’s why I work so hard every offseason and every day. I know how easily it can slip away since I’ve seen it happen to guys. I definitely strive everyday to keep living the dream as everyone says and continue to have the opportunity to pitch at the major league level.”
With a degree in history and education, Brach’s backup plan is to be a history teacher and high school coach if pro ball doesn’t continue to work out. However, there is no doubt in Ristano’s mind that Brach’s success at baseball’s highest level is just getting started.
“The longer I have coached, the more I realize you learn to trust personalities more than stuff. And if the Padres, Orioles or whoever he goes onto pitch for trusts his personality, then Brad is going to be a big leaguer for a really long time because he has a big league personality.”
Brach resides in Nashville over the offseason, but he relishes every opportunity that he gets to come back to West Long Brach.
“I idolize everything at Monmouth; the people, the coaches and the administration. Everybody is so supportive. Even when I go back today I can go up and say hi and talk to any of them and it’s like I haven’t been gone this entire time. It was a great experience when I was there and still to this day, I love going back there anytime I get a chance to.”