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A part of the minor league experience for many baseball players is getting assigned to clubs far from where they grew up.
And while High-A Aberdeen isn’t right around the corner from IronBirds pitcher Trace Bright’s hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, or Auburn University (where he played his college ball), there are some familiar faces nearby for the 22-year-old right-hander.
Bright’s great-aunt, her siblings and family live not far from Aberdeen, and it’s made his first full year as a pro all the more enjoyable.
“It’s nice, being so far away from my original home, having some extended family here, kind of getting the lay of the land and get all the good restaurant spots around here,” Bright said. “It’s nice and it’s been comforting, and they’ve been able to come to some home games.”
Also helpful: An impressive fastball and curveball that have allowed him to overcome some shaky early outings and emerge as a mainstay on the IronBirds’ staff.
Bright owns a 4.48 earned-run average in 19 appearances (15 starts), which on the surface might not be an overwhelming number. Yet in 70 1/3 innings, he has struck out 107 batters, good for fifth in the South Atlantic League.
He’s also shaved more than three runs off his ERA since it peaked at 7.71 on May 23th. In 11 appearances since then, he has a 2.49 ERA, with 70 strikeouts, 25 walks and 28 hits allowed in 47 innings.
It’s notable development for a pitcher who didn’t escape the first inning in back-to-back outings in April, walking three batters in both starts before sorting things out to reboot his season.
“I think there were two tough outings right there, but just kind of resetting the focus,” Bright said. “Made the first inning a big focus. I’d get through that first inning and the rest felt easy after that. It was just kind of a change in mindset, but nothing major.”
Bright, a fifth-round selection in last year’s draft, had a brief introduction to pro baseball last year when he threw two scoreless innings in the Florida Complex League and then held batters to an .091 average in 7 2/3 innings over three outings at Single-A Delmarva.
Baltimore moved him up to Aberdeen to begin this season, and much of his work has centered on developing pitches to complement the fastball and curveball that helped him become a reliable weekend starter in the SEC.
“It’s been a large focus, for sure,” Bright said. “I’ve always felt comfortable with my curveball. The slider’s been there. At times, I felt more comfortable with the changeup. The changeup was the main focus and being able to throw that more often and being able to get the usage of that up in games, because the more I throw it, the more comfortable I am being able to throw it deeper in games.”
Bright doesn’t simply want to have those extra pitches available, he wants to have command of them. And the fastball and curve for that matter, too.
His last three outings provide a fine snapshot of his development. He struck out nine in five innings of one-hit ball while only walking one on July 21st against Bowling Green. A week later at Jersey Shore, he walked three and hit two batters in just three innings, and ultimately allowed four runs while striking out five.
In an outing Thursday against Hickory, Bright matched his season high with 10 strikeouts and yielded only two hits. But three walks helped his pitch count rise to 82 in just four innings.
“You don’t want to walk guys, because a lot of times those turn into runs,” Bright said. “You want to get strikeouts, but you don’t want to be too perfect with pitches and end up walking guys.”
It’s a fine line, and Bright is still learning. Opponents are managing just a .198 average off him, including .169 in June and .177 in July. Adding length to his outings is an ongoing process; he’s made it through five innings just three times this season, but they’ve all come in his last six starts.
That’s progress for a pitcher who is playing for the organization he grew up rooting for as a child. Bright even made a trip to Camden Yards for his 9th birthday.
There’s still work to do to return there as a player, but a little more than a year after being drafted, he has come to value remaining steady amid a season that is bound to be volatile at times.
“It has its ups and downs, highs and lows,” Bright said. “Trying to keep that cool middle level throughout the whole way. You don’t want to sink too low or feel too high at any point in the year. I think getting the lay of the land and how things work has been a big difference for me.”
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