ALTOONA, Pa. – For the second time in his professional career, JT Brubaker was tasked with getting his team started on the right foot on Opening Day. Two weeks ago, Curve manager Michael Ryan went with Brubaker, beginning his second year for the Curve, as the team’s Opening Day starter, an honor that Brubaker took seriously.
“I just wanted to go out there and set the tone for the year,” Brubaker said after that game on April 5th.
The Pirates’ 2015 sixth round pick was also chosen to start on Opening Day for former West Virginia Power manager Brian Esposito, but this was his first one at home. Brubaker welcomed the pressure, which is something that he has gotten used to in recent history. “Big Game Brubaker” has pitched in multiple high pressure games for the Marauders and Curve over the past two years.
In 2016, Brubaker pitched six shutout innings to help Bradenton win game two and clinch the first round, best-of-three series against St. Lucie. In the Florida State League Championship Series, Brubaker only allowed one run in six innings during game four to clinch the FSL championship. Brubaker was one of two pitchers to win both of his starts in the playoffs that year (Mitch Keller was the other).
Last season, the Curve went into the final game of the year needing a win to clinch their division. Brubaker turned in a very solid performance with six innings and two runs against. That was nothing compared to his game two start in the Eastern League Championship Series, where he only allowed one earned run in eight innings.
Altogether, in his three playoff starts over the last two seasons, Brubaker has a 0.90 ERA in 20 IP. His playoff performances simply cannot be overlooked.
“From high school to college then pro ball, it’s something you live for,” Brubaker said. “As a little kid, you dream of being in the ninth inning and pitching in the World Series. From being a kid to being in the Eastern League Championship Series, it gets you one step closer to pitching in the World Series.”
Watching him pitch in person a lot over the last year, it’s easy to see that Brubaker definitely wears his heart on his sleeve. He was noticeably an emotional pitcher last season for the Curve. During times like those recent playoff appearances, he was able to channel his emotions properly and execute. During other times in his professional career, you would sometimes wonder if he let those emotions control him and hinder performance.
Brubaker entered this year with the focus of channeling his emotions and attitude into becoming a more attentive pitcher.
“My focus in the offseason was on channeling my attitude and mentality – the between the ears side of it,” Brubaker said. “I feel like focusing on between the ears will translate to better physical execution.”
“Its more of ‘show it with your pitches’, rather than storming around the mound after a pitch. Be emotional with your pitches. It’s not emotional like, ‘I’m going to rear back and throw this as hard as I can’, but emotional like, ‘I’m back on it, down in the zone and coming after you’.”
All that being said, he wants to be more of a “bulldog” on the mound, a phrase heard often from the Pirates’ current assistant pitching coach Justin Meccage. During his time as Altoona’s pitching coach then as a minor league pitching coordinator, Meccage would regularly say that he wants his guys to have a “bulldog mentality” on the mound.
For Brubaker, that all clicked while pitching in the Arizona Fall League last year, when he was coming out of the bullpen and needed to execute from pitch number one.
“From last year to this year, I’ve learned to attack right at pitch number one,” Brubaker said. “In the fall league, I was coming out of the ‘pen. I had to go out and attack with all my pitches, and that’s where it sank in. Throwing offspeed for first pitch and being able to pitch backwards more effectively and confidently. That’s where it came from, coming out of the ‘pen. It showed me a different side of pitching. Each pitch is so important.”
He was sent to the fall league to work on being more aggressive with his pitches, including pitching inside to brush batters back off the plate. He was then able to work on his secondary pitches, including an improved slider and changeup. In the fall league, Brubaker worked in the high-90s with his four-seamer, impressing Pirates’ brass with his performance.
Back in a starting role for the Curve, Brubaker will throw about half two-seamers, pounding the bottom of the zone and inducing ground balls, and half four-seamers with a higher velocity. So far in his two starts this season, his 54.2% ground ball rate is the highest of his career.
A more mature and more experienced JT Brubaker seems to be the one pitching for the Curve this season, and it may be just the ticket that the tall right-hander needs to progress through the Pirates’ system. Behind Mitch Keller and Brandon Waddell, Brubaker is likely the next in line to move the Indianapolis. Although it may not be in the first half of the 2018 campaign – or even in 2018 at all – Brubaker’s talent and potential are undeniable. The Pirates will continue to look to find ways to tap into that potential. For now, he will use his new “bulldog mentality” to continue to get better each time he takes the mound.
“I’m just going out there and attacking hitters and getting after it from pitch one,” Brubaker said. “I won’t be backed into a corner and have to try finding myself out of it. Get at it from pitch one. Getting a bulldog mentality and always on the attack.”
“I’ll continue to go out and leave it on the field. When the time comes and you get the call [to be promoted], that’s when you are ready because you prepared yourself.”