After thinking – many times – he’d never pitch again because of a torn elbow ligament, junior right-hander Jeff Brigham is wowing scouts with a 98-mph fastball. He is undefeated with a 1.29 ERA through five starts. And he is acutely aware of the need to have a Plan B for life beyond baseball.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – Jeff Brigham is incredibly transformed.
Just like his team. And the Husky Ballpark he is helping re-open this weekend.
“Phenomenal. We were recruited on this, and it’s coming true,” the Huskies’ suddenly premier starting pitcher said of Washington’s long-awaited, $15 million stadium.
We were in the second-floor Omaha Room of the sparkling Gittinger Team Building, looking through floor-to-ceiling glass that overlooks Husky Ballpark across its right-field foul line. We could see the purple chair backs, the home-plate suites and shiny FieldTurf inside the jewel that officially opens Friday night.
“I mean, this is beautiful,” he said. “There’s not going to be a better place in the Pac-12 to play. It’s just amazing. When they first broke ground on it you stood on the mound, looking and trying to imagine what it would look like. And now you look and it’s just an eye-opening experience to see that it’s actually here.
“It’s better that you could ever believe.”
So is Brigham.
Two years ago he was pitching through elbow pain so bad he had a hard time writing and brushing his teeth, let along throwing, with his right arm. Now the 6-foot, 183-pound right-hander is wowing Major League scouts with a fastball that was clocked last month at 98 miles per hour.
Twenty months after Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery that still has him pitching with worry, he is 3-0 with a 1.29 ERA that is fourth-best in the Pac-12. He has allowed a grand total of four runs in five starts. His next start is scheduled for Sunday to end a three-game series between surging Washington (13-5-1, 2-1 Pac-12) and Arizona (11-11, 1-2), the weekend set that is opening UW’s stunning new stadium next to Union Bay.
The Huskies were 24-32 overall and 15-15 in the Pac-12 last season. They’ve had one winning season in five years. But these latest Dawgs have won 10 of their last 11 games and are 6-1 on the road. That’s already half as many road wins as they had in 24 tests all last season. Last weekend they won a series at Arizona State for the first time since 2004. That is the last season Washington made it to the NCAA tournament.
Brigham didn’t get back on a mound following his surgery until September, yet he clinched the series win at ASU last Sunday with five more, buzz-saw-like innings. Pitching against the program to which he said thanks but no thanks in 2010 upon being offered a scholarship out of Thomas Jefferson High School in Federal Way, Wash., Brigham allowed one earned run. He didn’t walk anyone and struck out three while again using basically just a single pitch.
Ten of his 11 batted-ball outs were ground outs, continuing a trend of keeping the ball down in the strike zone.
Make that keeping his fastball down in the strike zone. All but a handful of his pitches this season have been straight, four-seam fastballs he’s precisely placed low in the zone. He’s still working his arm and his mind up to throwing sliders and changeups.
After all, these have been his first five starts in 21 months.
“He’s maybe a little bit ahead of where we’d thought he’d be,” Huskies coach Lindsay Meggs said.
He had to be deadpanning.
Maybe a little bit?
Last month in Surprise, Ariz., against Michigan State, Brigham estimated 83 of his 85 pitches were fastballs. He allowed just two hits and a run in seven innings for the win in front of about 50 major-league scouts plus a few general managers from their teams’ nearby spring-training homes.
“Yeah, I’m definitely relying a lot on my fastball. It’s definitely a good pitch,” Brigham says. “I mean, I’m not trying to miss bats at this point, and our fielders are killin’ it out there. They are really doing a very good job working behind me.”
Just imagine what he might do when he feels strong enough to start throwing his slider, which he’s been tossing between starts. Or when he masters his developing changeup.
Or, most of all, when he gets his mind fully over his elbow.
A PLAN B – FOR LIFE
His pain and eventual surgery gave Brigham incidental, unforeseen gifts that will prove to be assets for his most important game.
He now has perspective. He is happy to simply have any ERA. He’s glad to still be wearing a uniform, at being able to lift his right arm above his chest.
How often has he felt doubt over whether he’d ever pitch again?
“About every other day,” he said.
“It’s still one of those things where the arm doesn’t feel good, but I’ve got to just keep pushing through it and maintaining a positive mentality."
“I mean, it’s still one of those things where the arm doesn’t feel good, but I’ve got to just keep pushing through it and maintaining a positive mentality. But there are doubts that creep into my head every, single day. I mean, it rarely feels 100 percent. I think that’s something I have to deal with and stay positive, know that even if you are not 100 percent I am able to go out there and pitch and pitch at a high level.”
Brigham appeared in 23 games for UW as a true freshman in 2011 then had a 0.82 ERA in 22 innings pitching for the Bend, Ore., Elks in the West Coast summer league. But while in Bend he began having elbow pain.
He had multiple C-T scans and bone scans. Those exams, before his sophomore season, didn’t reveal any structural cause for the pain. Yet it remained searing from his elbow through his arm, not just when he pitched but whenever he lifted it. Opening a door hurt him.
“Everyone’s thinking I’m faking it,” he said. “I’m thinking I’m faking it.
“I had to try to pitch through some pain my sophomore year, just push through it because they couldn’t find anything wrong.”
Eventually a magnetic resonance image exam that Meggs said was taken from a different angle into Brigham’s elbow showed a 95-percent tear of the ulnar collateral ligament. The UCL is connects the bones of the upper arm and the forearm.
Dr. Edward Khalfayan, the medical director and orthopedic surgeon for the Seattle Mariners, the team orthopedic surgeon for the Seattle Seahawks and a clinical instructor at the UW School of Medicine, performed the Tommy John surgery on Brigham. On July 31, 2012, at an outpatient orthopedic center in Seattle, Khalfayan drilled holes into the bottom and top bones of Brigham’s arm on the ends near the elbow. Then he transferred, or “grafted,” a tendon from Brigham’s wrist and attached it the bones to replace the torn elbow ligament.
Brigham sounds very well-versed in Tommy John surgery and elbow structure, maybe too much so for his own good. He’s acutely aware of how far he’s come and how tenuous a pain-free arm is for a pitcher.
Then again, Brigham’s well-versed in a lot of things. He has a 3.45 grade-point average in accounting and finance. His GPA in high school was 3.98.
Brigham has a scar that is about four inches long and has left a thin, pink image inside his elbow with a bend like a hook at the top.
The scar that runs through his mind is deeper.
“Tommy John” ligament-replacement surgery is named after the former major league pitcher on whom the first such operation was performed, in 1974. The surgery has become so prevalent in the 40 years since the late Dr. Frank Jobe pioneered it to reinvent pitchers’ careers, it’s almost assumed now that any pitcher that has the surgery will return -- and succeed.
Yet Brigham’s story shows there are mental hurdles to overcome, as much as physical ones, for a pitcher who’s just had his most vital tool rebuilt.
“There have definitely been a lot of times where I’ve thought I was never going to pitch again,” he says of his 18 months not pitching.
Those doubts have forced Brigham to be a more globally thinking young man. They made him solidify a Plan B, made him concentrate more than ever on what he will want to do once the arm – or the game – tell him he’s played long enough.
In June he will have finished his accounting coursework.
“And I plan on remaining in the undergraduate program for my fifth year – if I don’t get drafted after this year – and study more finance,” he said of another add-on to his business administration degree.
“I think by that time I will have earned 25 credits and be able to sit for the CPA exam. So I can have a CPA background, accounting, but at the same time still be able to pursue a career in finance.”
So, yes, he is preparing for life beyond the diamond.
“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, once you have this surgery and have these doubts, you’ve got to sit down and look yourself in the mirror and be like, ‘Hey, I’ve got to have something. Something to do that’s not baseball.’
“It’s getting better. Obviously, it’s in the back of my mind still. But the more I pitch, the more times that I get on the mound, I think the further behind it gets and the more trust I have in my arm that it is going to hold up and I’m going to be able to take the stresses of pitching.”
Still, it’s better than before the surgery, when he was forced to do everyday tasks you and I take for granted such as writing and eating with his left, off hand.
“It still gets sore after I throw,” he said, “but that’s the process of the surgery.”
This is also a part of his new process: Major-league scouts flocking to his games and texting him between starts.
The game he thought he may never play again could soon be paying him.
“It’s definitely a cool experience to interact with the scouts like that,” he said. “I mean, I’m definitely still in the process of gaining strength in my arm. It’s definitely cool that maybe I have a future in baseball. But at the same time I still have a long ways to go before I am even going to have a chance to pitch at another level.
“I am staying focused on the day-to-day activities that will only get my arm stronger and in better shape.”
Brigham has been on a strict pitch count for each of his starts this season, no more than 85 pitches. Recently the Huskies scaled that back to 65, to ramp him back up for the Pac-12 season.
About two hours after he completes a start he puts on headphones, dials up his music – Macklemore’s “And We Danced” is a favorite -- and goes on a 25-minute jog he calls a “flush run” to try and help move all the lactic acid from his arm and body. Then he gets enough ice to attract a penguin, immediately following each start and on two of the six or so days between appearances.
Two years ago he was pitching through elbow pain so bad he had a hard time writing and brushing his teeth, let along throwing, with his right arm. Now the right-hander is wowing Major League scouts with a fastball that was clocked last month at 98 miles per hour.
Brigham generally does not pick up a baseball the day after he pitches but plays catch on day two. He’ll throw a bullpen on day three or four and take day it very easy on the fifth day. The day before he pitches he does some light tossing.
Even though he got back on a mound five months ago, he hasn’t been throwing that entire time. He’s been with his best friend, Josh Fredendall. The Huskies’ senior closer has yet to return from his Tommy John surgery following his nine-save season in 2012.
“I KNOW I wouldn’t be back here right now without him,” Brigham said of Fredendall.
The two healing Huskies spent two hours per day, seven days each week for a year – even over holiday breaks -- doing workouts to strengthen their core torso muscles. They did lunges. They did squats.
They did bonding.
“The key there was we were continually pushing each other to put on my work,” Brigham said. “I mean, the core, we probably did core a year straight of just every, single day. One day one of us wouldn’t want to do core and the other would just push us -- every, single day – to do it.
“It was just a grind.”
Even when Fredendall was home in California over school breaks, he would text or call Brigham and vice versa, to report each day’s core workout.
Fredendall’s recovery is going well and he hopes to return later this season.
“We kind of have a chip on our shoulders,” he said. “It’s been long enough since we’ve played baseball for a sustained amount of time.
“I think we can make something special of this situation.”
A CHAMPION DUNKER, TOO(!)
Brigham’s been a Husky since, oh, about birth.
His father Brent graduated from Washington. He is now a chemical engineer and the manager of economics and planning at U.S. Oil and Refinery, located in the tide flats of Tacoma. His mother Gloria, also a UW graduate, is the director of risk management for Franciscan Health System.
Jeff has an older brother Tyler. He, too, is a Husky – and a 25-year-old accountant at Deloitte auditing, consulting, financial advisory and risk management in downtown Seattle.
Jeff played almost everything growing up, including soccer, cross country and golf competitively. His first love was basketball because that was Tyler’s favorite sport.
“I didn’t think I’d be a Division-I athlete until my junior year of high school, when I wasn’t 5-6 weighing 150 pounds anymore,” he said.
Between his sophomore to junior year of high school he grew four inches and gained 20 pounds. Meggs pointed me to a YouTube video of Brigham dunking when he was at Thomas Jefferson High.
Hey, thanks coach. Here it is.
Brigham rolled his eyes and smiled at that.
“Yeah,” he said, “I got invited to play in one of our league all-star games. And I was able to get the opportunity to get a fast-break dunk. And I was able to put it down.”
“And I’ve won our alumni slam-dunk contest before (you can see that here). I think they definitely give me a little bit of a bias because I am shorter.”
Meggs knew he was getting a talented athlete when he signed Brigham in his second UW recruiting class in 2010; the coach said his pitcher may be the team’s best athlete.
But he didn’t know he was getting what he has now.
“We saw him in high school. We were impressed with him over how athletic he was,” Meggs said. “But we never counted on him having this kind of velocity. We were seeing him in the 80s. And with his size, I don’t think anyone could have thought he’d eventually be throwing in the mid-90s.”
Brigham attributes the increase in velocity to all that core work he did with Fredendall.
Brigham chose the Huskies over offers from Washington State and Arizona State.
“There was no chance I was going to Wazzu,” he said. “I’ve been a die-hard Husky since birth. My mom, my dad, my brother went here. There was really no doubt I was coming here. It was just whether I would get the opportunity to play baseball here.”
When I asked him about turning down Arizona State, its tradition and its weather, Brigham smiled.
“Yeah, they made it to the College World Series my freshman year,” he said. “But I get to go to college 25 minutes from home. I get to root for my team.
“I mean, I don’t see myself ever going to Washington State or Arizona State and rooting against the Huskies. It was a perfect fit for me, to drive up the street and be able to play for the school I grew up loving.”
That fit has never been more perfect than it is right now, on the eve of a long-awaited, grand new stadium opening.
And with Jeff Brigham as wondrously changed as his ballpark.
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He receive a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
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