MTSU’s Brentz living in the moment
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Yogi Berra once said you can’t think and hit the baseball at the same time, and Middle Tennessee State star Bryce Brentz said he lives Berra’s theory each day.
As a freshman in 2008, he struck out 47 times and had a .404 on-base percentage. Last season, Brentz relaxed at the plate and let his natural talent take over. He cut his strikeouts to 32 and improved his on-base percentage to .535. He also improved his batting average from.329 to .465.
His power production also greatly increased, with his home runs going from 18 to 28, his RBI total from 68 to 73 and his slugging percentage from .671 to .930.
“I think I got myself out a lot my freshman season. I’d chase a high fastball or dig at a pitch in the dirt,” Brentz said. “Once the season was over, I worked real hard in the offseason before last season not to chase bad pitches and to recognize good pitches.
“I figured if the ball is close to the strike zone, the rest will take care of itself.”
While Brentz established himself as one of the nation’s premier players last season, he now must maintain that status. He no longer is a slugger from a mid-major conference that few know about; he’s now a household name among college baseball fans, and that means high expectations.
“There are some things that you might as well just chalk up as a career year, and for Bryce, that was last season,” Middle Tennessee coach Steve Peterson said. “I’ve told him not to expect it again. That doesn’t mean he can’t hit double-digit homers, but let’s just say we don’t expect him to emulate last season’s production.”
Brentz was a star player at Knoxville (Tenn.) South Doyle High, but he had plenty of things that needed tweaking when he arrived in college. Plate discipline was in need of major improvement.
“He was basically a hit-or-miss type of player in high school. To get a lot of playing time as a college hitter, he really needed to learn how to take breaking pitches and hit the ball the other way,” Peterson said. “He showed me early in his freshman year that he was willing to listen and ask questions. That’s when I knew he was ahead of the game from a mental standpoint.”
Brentz always had had rather modest expectations for himself. He went into his freshman season hoping to hit around .300, with five or six homers and 40 RBIs. As a sophomore, his goal was to hit around .300, with up to six homers and 50 RBIs. So, after putting up monster numbers last season, what are his goals as a junior?
“This year is going to be the same thing. I’m going to go out there and hope I hit .300 with five or six homers and 50 RBIs,” Brentz said with a laugh. “I just want to have some fun.
“I just want to hit the ball and run.”
Brentz is one of the nation’s best hitters, but he has other attributes that will make him important to the Blue Raiders’ success this season. Brentz served as a weekend starter last season, going 5-3 with a 4.57 ERA in 88 2/3 innings. He struck out 63 and walked 31 while limiting opponents to a .265 batting average.
Brentz plans to pitch again this season, but Peterson may have another pitching role in mind for his star.
The Blue Raiders lost reliever Coty Woods to the MLB draft last summer; Woods had a 1.62 ERA and held opposing teams to a .213 batting average. Peterson believes Brentz has the attitude to adequately replace Woods as MTSU’s closer this season.
“I think putting him in the bullpen to fill a huge void is the most logical choice right now,” Peterson said. “There’s certainly still a chance he will be a starting pitcher, but right now I think closer is the better option.”
Brentz, who was used sparingly as a starting pitcher before his days at MTSU, said he’s fine with becoming the closer.
“My mentality actually fits better in the bullpen. You can come in and pretty much throw as hard as you can. I like that,” he said. “At the end of the game, whether I’m at the plate or on the mound, I want the ball in my hand. The closer’s role allows me to do that.”
Peterson also must decide where to use Brentz when he’s not pitching. Last season, Brentz primarily played in left and right field. This season, the Blue Raiders plan to move him to center field.
“He will start the season in center field, and it’ll be interesting because I’m not real sure he has ever played that position outside of summer baseball and things like that,” Peterson said. “There’s a lot of responsibility as a center fielder and it’s a different responsibility than he had last season.”
Though pro scouts certainly like Brentz’s hitting ability, how he fares in center field ultimately could decide how high he is drafted in June. He definitely will go in the top-five rounds; his ability to be a first- or second-round selection depends heavily on how he fields his new position.
“The scouts definitely know about hitting ability and hard-nosed attitude,” Peterson said. “Now they’ll go out there and make a judgment on how he plays his position.”
Brentz realizes what a successful campaign at the plate and in the field could mean for his future. For now, though, he is focused on helping the Blue Raiders take another step forward after finishing last season with an NCAA regional berth.
“It’s exciting to think about, ‘Man, if I do well this year, I can go pretty high in the draft.’ But you can’t think too much about that,” Brentz said. “You can’t think about that because if you have a bad streak, you’ll start to think about if you’re falling down draft charts.”
Brentz prefers not to think too much. He just wants to play.