Six years ago in a story headlined, “Tecumseh has an ace in Brubaker,” Arrows baseball coach Roger Culbertson had some prophetic words about his senior pitcher.
“J.T. has a lot of upside,” Tecumseh coach Roger Culbertson said. “One of these days, he’s going to fill out those size 14 shoes.”
On Friday night in the dugout at Huntington Park after a bus ride from Indianapolis that took him past the exit for New Carlisle — the latest road trip in a four-year journey through the minor leagues — J.T. Brubaker was asked about the size of his shoes.
“Thirteen or 14,” Brubaker said. “I was probably 12 then. I’ve definitely grown. I could still put on more weight. That’s always a necessity.”
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In five years, Brubaker has progressed from a Central Buckeye Conference standout to an Akron Zips star to a pitcher on the brink of the major leagues. The Pittsburgh Pirates promoted him from the Double-A Altoona Curve to the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians on May 10, and Brubaker has continued the success he had in the lower levels.
In seven starts at Triple-A, Brubaker is 4-2 with a 3.13 ERA. He’ll make his eighth start Sunday against the Clippers.
“He’s come up here and pitched well,” Indianapolis manager Brian Esposito said. “He’s gotten his feet wet. He’s done some really good things. He’s gotten hit in the mouth a few times here and there with some command stuff and not being efficient with his pitches, but for the most part he’s done a really good job of being a professional, which is No. 1 for a younger guy coming to this level around some older guys, and getting his work done and competing like a pro and doing all the little things that will allow you to become a major league pitcher.”
Brubaker seeks to become the first Clark County native to make it to the big leagues since Adam Eaton, the Kenton Ridge graduate who debuted in 2012 and now plays for the Washington Nationals. The last Clark County pitcher to reach the big leagues was North graduate Jimmy Journell, who appeared in 12 games for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2003 and 2005.
For now, Brubaker’s putting thoughts of the next level out of his head.
“You always have to be ready for when the phone rings,” Brubaker said. “You’re one call away. You’ve got to put that aside and focus on what you need to do here. When the phone rings, be ready. At that moment is when you become excited.”
This is Brubaker’s fourth season in the Pirates organization. Pittsburgh drafted him in the sixth round in 2015. He started his pro career with the West Virginia Black Bears in the New York-Penn League and was 6-4 with a 2.82 ERA in 2015. He pitched for the West Virginia Power and Bradenton (Fla.) Marauders in Single-A in 2016 and was 6-11 with a 4.44 ERA.
Last season, Brubaker was 7-6 with a 4.44 ERA with Altoona. Then he pitched in the Arizona Fall League and learned how he stacked up against the best players in minor league baseball. He pitched 13 2/3 innings of relief and had a 2.63 ERA in eight appearances.
Brubaker said his changeup has improved the most during his time in the minor leagues. His velocity continues to rise as well. He consistently reaches 94-96 miles per hour and can hit 97. In Arizona, he hit 99 for the first time.
“I didn’t even notice,” Brubaker said. “I didn’t feel a difference. It just kind of happened. I didn’t ask questions.”
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The continuing maturation process has led to Brubaker posting some of his best numbers this season.. He began the year with Altoona and was 2-2 with a 1.80 ERA in six starts. In his first Triple-A start, he threw six scoreless innings against the Louisville Bats.
Brubaker attributed his improvement to “just knowing myself, knowing what I’m capable of, trusting my stuff, just letting what I’ve learned and worked on take over and become natural.”
Esposito, who also managed Brubaker with the Power in the South Atlantic League, has seen improved mound presence and demeanor from the 24-year-old right-hander.
“He looks like a guy that is out there ready to compete and attack,” Esposito said. “You wouldn’t know if he’s down 10 or up 10. You wouldn’t know what the circumstances were in the game. He’s got a ton of poise out there.”
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