Minor league baseball: Rudy down on the farm
By Mike London
Geneva, Ill., home of the Kane County Cougars, is just 35 miles west of Chicago, but it may as well be 3,000.
“I can look out and see the corn growing in the fields — just like back home,” says southpaw reliever Rudy Brown. “It’s a whole lot like home here. I’m comfortable.”
The 6-foot-4 South Rowan graduate is making Class A Midwest League hitters surprisingly uncomfortable. The Kansas City Royals signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2010. That made him the longest of longshots, and he was supposed to be out of baseball by now.
But Brown, who turned 24 last month, is closer to moving up than moving out. His ERA sits at 2.13, and he hasn’t allowed a run in his last nine relief outings for the Cougars.
Brown never forgets that 30 teams passed on him for 50 rounds on draft day. That spurs him. He’s so focused on baseball that he hasn’t even taken the time to visit the huge Windy City that’s less than an hour away.
“Not being drafted, I probably have as much motivation as anybody in our locker room,” Brown said. “The way I look at it, I don’t have nothing to lose. Not a lot of people expected me to make it this far.”
Brown was 1-5 as a high school senior despite some flashes of potential. There was a day he fanned 11 Mooresville hitters in four innings.
Then Brown struck out a program-record 18 hitters for the South Legion team against Lexington, right after he graduated high school in 2006.
After his 2007 season at Surry Community College, he was still eligible for Legion, so he set another program record that summer with 86 Ks.
Two good years at Surry led to two good years at UNC Pembroke, where Brown was fine out of the bullpen, but not exactly a star.
But he’s big, he’s left-handed, and he throws fastballs nearly 90 mph, so there were reasons why people thought he might be drafted in 2010.
He wasn’t, but the Royals signed him to a contract a week after the draft when a scout saw him pitch in the MINK League. MINK is short for Missouri-Iowa-Nebraska-Kansas.
Brown excelled (2-1, 2.52) with the Royals’ rookie team in the Arizona League in 2010, but he was just OK in the summer of 2011 with Burlington, the Royals’ advanced rookie team. His strikeout numbers were excellent (47 in 392/3 innings), but his ERA was 4.31.
“I was up to 255 pounds when last season ended, but when I reported to spring training this year I was down to 225,” Brown said. “It wasn’t magically done. I really had to work at it, but hard works pays off. I feel better and I’m pitching better.”
Brown stayed in extended spring training until June, and that can be a monotonous grind, but he prospered after he was assigned to Kane County.
“It’s been exciting,” he said. “The pitching coach (Jim Brower) is good and he’s given me great advice.”
The key for any hurler is being able to throw different pitches for strikes, and Brown has command of a fastball, changeup and slider. That explains how he’s struck out 24 batters while walking five. Lefties, as you might expect, aren’t doing a lot against him, and right-handers are under .200.
“I’ve been able to locate my fastball — to both sides of the plate,” Brown said. “The changeup is now my second-best pitch and has really developed. The slider is coming along. I’m trusting it more.”
His mound workload has been light. He pitches one or two innings every four or five days, so he’s always fresh.
Brown didn’t pitch Wednesday when the Cougars made a 140-mile commute to Beloit, Wisc., but he fired two scoreless innings on Thursday.
He hears from the folks back home quite a bit. Besides his family and girlfriend, South Legion pitching coach Kenny Simpson checks in the most frequently. Brown tells them all the same thing — that he’s happy and feels blessed.
“The good Lord above gave me the chance of a lifetime with baseball, and I don’t intend to let it slip away,” he said. “I’m going at this as hard as I can.”
The next move up for Brown would bring him back to North Carolina with the Wilmington Blue Rocks.
It could happen. Kane County has 14 pitchers, but only three are lefties. Those guys are tough to find.