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July 13, 2011 at 8:16 AM

Q&A with Bryce Brentz

As disappointing as his debut in the Red Sox organization last season was, Salem outfielder Bryce Brentz' first full-season has been just as impressive. In 63 games between Greenville and Salem, Brentz has torched A-ball pitching, hitting .338 with 20 home runs, 57 RBI, and a 1.051 OPS, all near the top of the system. Though he stumbled to a .198 average for Lowell in 2010, Brentz is no stranger to success. He led the NCAA in batting average (.465), home runs (28), slugging percentage (.930), and total bases (214) in his sophomore season at Middle Tennessee State, and in 2011 is looking every bit the player who slugged his way onto the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team that season. After a recent game in Wilmington, Del., Brentz took some time to chat with me about his background in baseball, his successes and failures on the field, and much more.

Jon Meoli: Let’s start from the beginning with you. You were a Preseason High School All-American your senior year of high school and were drafted by the Indians pretty late. What was the difference between then and three years later?
Bryce Brentz: I was drafted as a pitcher out of high school. It was the last year of draft and follow in the 30th round. After my senior year, it was like, “Have I reached my full potential as a hitter yet?” If that was it, then I thought I should sign and go be a pitcher, but I felt I had more to work on as a hitter. At Middle Tennessee, they offered me the chance to do both. With the scholarship they offered me, I didn’t want to turn it down, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The coaching staff was great, the environment was great and I had a chance to play right away as a freshman. To get in and get three years of experience really helped out.

JM: Was that a situation where you wanted a chance to hit and not a lot of schools were offering you that chance?
BB: More schools offered for the pitching. Tennessee came in late, they wanted me to go there and be their closer. That’s all I did in high school. I just closed. I started junior year, but I was just a closer mostly. A couple places, smaller schools, did the same thing and offered [me the chance to play] two-ways, but Middle Tennessee was D1 and they offered both ways. I couldn’t pass that up.

JM: What was your repertoire on the mound? And how long did you pitch in college?
BB: I pitched freshman year, got hurt, then I started all the Friday nights my sophomore year. Junior year, I just pitched one inning of relief because the coaches didn’t want to mess my arm up. They just wanted me to play outfield. The hardest I ever got up to was 97, but I sat low-to-mid 90s. I’d throw 95 a couple times a game, but I was just a fastball-slider guy. Not really spotting up, I just went out there and threw the ball as hard as I could for as long as I could until the coach came and got me. That was about it.

JM: At what point did you see your hitting progress to a point where you knew that was what you wanted to focus on?
BB: I had a really good freshman year at Middle Tennessee, and I thought, “Man, this is what I want to do.” Pitching is every fifth day, once a week in college if you’re a starter. I don’t like sitting watching baseball games. I like to play in games. I really liked working on my hitting and I had great hitting instruction there. Sophomore year I had a great year and junior year, I lost some protection in the lineups to graduation and I was out for three weeks with a foot injury.

JM: There were reports that that injury lingered in Lowell last year. Was that true?
BB: That didn’t linger on, but that first year in Lowell, the biggest thing I learned was how many fastballs they throw. In college baseball, they throw a lot of off-speed stuff. I saw a lot of it in college, so I used to sit more on off-speed stuff. Instead of getting a curveball, it was an 0-2 fastball right by me. I learned from that year, took it to [the Fall Instructional League] and spring training and I’ve been trying to learn from it every season.

JM: Jumping back for a second, you had such a great sophomore season. Did you put any added pressure on yourself to replicate it during your draft year?
BB: Not really, but let’s be honest. I wish I’d had that year my junior year, that would have been nice. Everybody has a career year. Barry Bonds only hit 80 [ed's note: actually 73 homers in 2001], same thing with Mark McGwire, he only hit 70 once, so I guess that was my career year. But it helped me out, put me on the map and I got to play with Team USA, which was awesome. Then moving towards the draft, I was a little hard on myself but as we started progressing and I was getting into a groove, I got hurt.

JM: That USA team was loaded last year, with first-rounders Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, and Sonny Gray on the staff. If you had to pick, which was the toughest to face?
BB: Man, they all were pretty tough. I would probably say Cole, because he knows how to pitch too. So does Bauer. Bauer has a lot more pitches and arm slots, but Cole, it’s hard to face someone who throws 103. He was tough. Bauer was more finesse but had great stuff, and Sonny was a power pitcher with great stuff. Every one of them was hard to step in there against.

JM: Coming into this year, you said you tried to bring a lot of what you learned in Lowell with you to camp. At the same time, did you try to forget the struggles of the season and just move on? How do you deal with things like that?
BB: Coming back off the DL, everything I hit seemed to find a glove, whether it was hard, soft, or in between. Last year in Lowell, I was putting way too much pressure on myself and trying to do way too much. That just snowballed. When I started struggling after I came off the DL, I told myself to just keep playing and it’ll come back. It’s starting to come back now, hopefully, but it’s a long season. Like I said, I’m going to try my best not to miss a fastball, and if it’s anything else, I’m going to adjust to it, go from there, and learn from at bats. That, and staying calm. That’s my biggest problem; I get too anxious at the plate and try to hit the ball 900 feet. I just need to take a smooth swing.

JM: Now you said that you try to leave the bad stuff in the last at-bats, but what about the good stuff? You had that long hitting streak this year. I’m sure it helps your confidence, but what does something like that do for your approach when you’re in jeopardy of losing the streak?
BB: It never really changed my approach, but a lot of those last at-bat hits on the hitting streak that were a home run or a double were on fastballs. I still hadn’t seen a fastball and knew they were going to throw one; I just had to try not to miss it. A couple were 0-2 fastballs. I had a couple of home runs on 0-2 fastballs to keep the streak alive. The streak just kept going and going. When it got to 26, I could kind of feel. It kind of mounts up, man. I’ve got a lot of respect for anyone who gets a hitting streak going, because it takes a lot.

JM: I’d heard that the crowd down there in Greenville got pretty excited about the streak. What was that like, having it mean so much to them?
BB: There was one game against Charleston and I was 0 for 4 or something and we were down 9-0. I hit a two-run bomb in my last at-bat, and the place went nuts. The place lit up like I’d just hit a walk-off. My buddy Eric [Jarinko, Greenville’s senior director of marketing & media services] sent me a text and said he had never seen a press box so happy.

JM: Just wrapping up, what type of guy are you off the field? Any interests during the off-season?
BB: When I’m not working out and hitting, I go hunting. I just started this season, because hunting is expensive. I could never afford it, but that kind of changed now, so whenever I had a chance I’d go out there. This year I’ll try to do the same thing.

JM: Any best baseball memory that stands out for you?
BB: There’s a lot, man. One of my favorites was for Team USA. We were playing in the championship game, and Yasmani Grandal and I went back-to-back in our last two at-bats. We were up and he hit one, I hit one, and coach took us out and let the other guys play. In college, winning our Sun Belt championship. In pro ball, there are too many to count.