April 3, 2012

On Baseball: When Brentz swings, there's no mistaking the sound

By Kevin Thomas kthomas@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

FORT MYERS, Fla. — In the indoor batting cages at the Red Sox spring training complex, the thwacks are constant as batters swing at pitches from minor league coaches.

click image to enlarge

Bryce Brentz, who hit 30 home runs in Class A last year, will start this season with the Sea Dogs.

Boston Red Sox

SEA DOGS OPENERS

SEASON: 4 p.m. Thursday, at Reading (DH)

HOME: 6 p.m. April 12, vs. Binghamton Mets

Occasionally, the thwack makes you take notice.

Like when Bryce Brentz takes his swings. Brentz, 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, stands still in the batter's box. The bat is held up, unmoving.

Then Brentz pounces, wheels the bat in a blur and smacks another baseball.

Thwack.

"It's loud," Red Sox roving hitting coach Victor Rodriguez said with a smile.

What batting coach wouldn't be smiling about Brentz, 23, an outfielder ready to join the rest of the Portland Sea Dogs when they hold their first workout at Hadlock Field today.

Sea Dogs batting coach Dave Joppie will be working with Brentz.

"I'm very excited to have him be a part of our ballclub," Joppie said.

Joppie does his homework with every Sea Dogs batter he's worked with over the past four years. He's had some impressive students, including the powerful Anthony Rizzo.

Now comes Brentz.

"He's one of those guys," Joppie said, "that when he steps up to the plate, you get a different feeling that something very good can happen right here."

Brentz was a sandwich-round draft pick out of Middle Tennessee State in 2010 -- the 36th overall player chosen. Such a high pick brings high expectations.

Brentz embraced those expectations, but too tightly. He arrived in Lowell, Mass., that summer to play in the rookie New York-Penn League. He intended to prove himself quickly.

"Swinging for the fences every swing," Brentz said.

The result: a .198 average with five home runs in 69 games.

"During the season, when you're struggling, they tell you that you just need to tone it down and don't try to do so much," Brentz said. "But when you're struggling, you want to do more.

"When I was able to get away from baseball and clear my head a little bit, it was like, man, why did I do it that way? I should have just taken it easy.

"I came into next year and did what I wanted to do."

The result in 2011: a combined .306 average in low Class A and advanced Class A, along with 30 home runs.

"Calmed down a little bit more at the plate," he said. "Just a matter of trusting ability. Whenever I did that, things took off."

Brentz was named the organization's offensive co-player of the year (with Ryan Lavarnway) and is ranked by Baseball America as Boston's No. 5 prospect.

Not bad for a guy drafted out of high school to be a pitcher.

Cleveland drafted Brentz as a pitcher in the 30th round in 2007.

By then, Brentz had accepted a scholarship to Middle Tennessee State.

He was not ready to give up being a hitter, and Middle Tennessee said he could pitch and play the field on days when he didn't pitch.

Actually, Brentz had choices to make before that. He might have gone on in football, having played quarterback and linebacker.

His father, Charlie, played strong safety for Mississippi State.

Brentz's first college scholarship offer was for wrestling.

"I loved it, but there is nothing after college," Brentz said. "A lot of people said I needed to concentrate on baseball."

He listened. He committed to both pitching and hitting in his first two seasons at Middle Tennessee State.

His fastball once hit 97 mph on the radar gun. But Brentz's hitting kept improving with solid instruction.

As a sophomore in 2009, Brentz led Division I in hitting (.465) and home runs (28). Those numbers came down a little the next year, but he was still considered a top prospect. And his strong arm works well in right field.

His struggles in Lowell may have been the best learning tool for Brentz. The Red Sox hope he can adjust and still be a power hitter.

"He's a very, very, very aggressive hitter," Joppie said. "That is something that we will not take away from him. He has the ability to impact the game with his bat.

"We need for him to tighten up routines and become consistent with his approach. That's going to be our goal."

So Brentz will be in Portland today, ready to learn. He already knows about Red Sox fans -- "the support is everywhere, the fans already know who you are" -- and has heard good things about the Portland franchise.

He also has heard about the good hunting in Maine, although that will have to wait for the offseason. Brentz likes to hunt with a bow. Last week on a day off, he killed a hog south of Fort Myers.

Sea Dogs fans may remember that Jon Still did the same thing two years ago in Fort Myers, providing a feast for the minor league camp.

Brentz thought of doing the same thing, but there was a problem with storing 250 pounds of meat at the Red Sox complex, so Brentz took it to a grateful homeless shelter.

Now he has to put down the bow and pick up the bat.

Be ready for the thwack.

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at: kthomas@pressherald.com

Twitter: ClearTheBases

 

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