Pro Baseball: Brooks adjusting, piling up strikeouts

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 31, 2015

Former Catawba pitcher Craig Brooks thought he’d thrown some heat, but he learned what serious heat was when he reported to the Chicago Cubs training facility in Mesa, Ariz.
“It’s very hot in Arizona,” Brooks said. “It felt like I’d set the oven at 500 degrees and then stuck my face in there. Dry heat, but it was like 113 or 114 every day.”
Brooks headed to Arizona after signing in June with the Cubs as a seventh-round draft pick.
Some people were amazed he was picked that high. They questioned his size (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) and questioned the level of competition he’d faced in Division II.
Others were amazed he was drafted that low. Some scouts thought Brooks owned the best college arm in North Carolina. He threw mid-90s consistently. When Catawba used him in a relief role late in the season, he threw 97s.
Brooks has a lot going for him. Besides lighting up radar guns, he’s tremendously competitive, tremendously team-oriented and tremendously athletic. When he wasn’t pitching, he was Catawba’s shortstop as a junior. He moved over to third base as a senior, with the idea that third would mean less strain on the ace’s right arm.
Still, there was inevitable wear and tear. There was a scare in the Southeast Regional when Brooks’ elbow didn’t feel right. He didn’t start any games in the D-II World Series, but he was an overpowering closer in the three games Catawba won.
Brooks was a consensus choice as the best player in Division II. He received the Brett Tomko Award as D-II Pitcher of the Year and the Josh Willingham Award that goes to the D-II MVP. He was the Rawlings Gold Bat winner as national player of the year for a season that included a 9-1 pitching record, a 1.45 ERA and a D-II-leading 158 strikeouts. He struck out a staggering 14 batters per nine innings. He also batted .300 with 43 RBIs.
Still, he started from scratch as a pro — and not a rich one. Seniors have no negotiating leverage, and the Cubs signed Brooks at the bargain price of $5,000.
He didn’t make his pro debut right away.
“I’d pitched a lot for Catawba, and the Cubs wanted me to rest and they wanted to check out my elbow to make sure everything was all right,” Brooks said. “I had an MRI. It came back clean.”
His last pitching outing for Catawba had been on May 29, so he was rusty when he made his pro debut in the Arizona Rookie League on July 9. That first relief outing was a small disaster — three hits, one walk and four earned runs in one-third of an inning.
His ERA stood at 108.00. At least the out he recorded was a strikeout.
“In college, I threw hard enough that I got away with a lot,” Brooks said. “But this is a different level and the hitters all have an approach. The first thing you learn, even if you’ve got your good fastball, is you have to hit spots.”
The Cubs made tweaks with Brooks’ starting position on the rubber, and his next three relief outings went smoothly. In late July, the Cubs promoted Brooks to the Eugene Emeralds, their short-season team in the Class A Northwest League. Many teams the Emeralds play are in Oregon, but there also was a memorable 450-mile ride to Boise, Idaho.
The move north has brought out the best in Brooks.
“It’s 85 to 90 degrees, and usually with a nice breeze blowing,” Brooks said. “We live in a hotel, minutes from the ballpark and guys ride bikes or take a van to the park. We play on the University of Oregon’s field, and it’s beautiful. We’ve got a good team. We’re in first place.”
Brooks has been part of the Emeralds’ success. He got his first pro win for Eugene on July 29, although he didn’t celebrate. He gave up the tying run, but he became the winning pitcher when the Emeralds reclaimed the lead.
“My first win and I didn’t even realize I’d won.” Brooks said.
Brooks has made professionals look overmatched in the month of August, firing one inning every four or five days. Three times he’s come in for an inning and struck out the side. In eight August appearances, he’s struck out 18 in nine innings, while walking only one.
He’s allowed five hits in August. Three were in the same inning.
“They kept fouling off fastballs, and I got a little frustrated,” Brooks said. “Then I started throwing my other pitches and they got a few bloop hits.”
Brooks is 2-0. His second win came on Aug. 15 when he pitched an inning and struck out the side. His first pro save came on Aug. 25. Again, he faced three and fanned three.
“Outings like that do build your confidence,” said Brooks, who struck out two of the three batters he faced in his most recent outing on Saturday. “But I know I’ve still got a lot to work on, especially my changeup.”
Brooks misses hitting, and misses it a lot.
“I do get to take a glove out there during batting practice to field ground balls and cover a base,” Brooks said. “But I haven’t gotten to swing much. I’m trying to get used to the pitcher’s life.”
Brooks has a week left in the regular season and Eugene should be in the playoffs after that. When the season ends, he’ll come home for two weeks. He’s looking forward to seeing the people at Catawba, as well as the folks in Monroe, his hometown.
“The toughest thing about being on the west coast, with a three-hour time difference, is I only talk to my parents about every three days,” Brooks said. “They’re always working. I’m always at the ballpark.”
The Cubs like what they’ve seen from Brooks. He’ll return to Arizona to pitch for the Cubs’ entry in the Arizona Instructional League, following his two-week vacation in North Carolina.
The goal for Brooks, who turns 23 on Sept. 23, is to open the 2016 season with a full-season team. His most likely destination is Indiana, with the South Bend Cubs.
“I’ll be working out with the baseball team at Catawba to get ready for next season,” Brooks said. “I expect Catawba to keep it rolling.”