Trivia question – who led the Vancouver Canadians pitching staff in victories during the 2011 Northwest League championship season? Fans may recall the vaunted pitching trio of Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez and Justin Nicolino. The talented three all found that way to the bigs along with fellow hurlers Taylor Cole and David Rollins. However, none of those five are the right answer. The wins leader in 2011 for the good ship Canadian was Philip Brua, our latest guest on C’s Chat. Some of that excerpts of that chat can be found below along with the full interview.
The right-handed Brua signed with the Toronto Blue Jays as a free agent out of NCAA Division III Oberlin College in Ohio. He spent four seasons with the Yeomen and compiled a program-high 65 career pitching appearances while placing second all-time in wins. As a result, Oberlin decided to retire his number 6 jersey right after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology.
Brua made it to Oberlin after a decorated high school career in which he lettered in baseball, football and basketball in his hometown of Avon, Ohio. He also made the honour roll in all four years and was a member of the National Honour Society. For Brua, it boiled down to choosing between the diamond and the gridiron.
“I was a three-sport athlete in high school when I was really more of a football player than anything but after talking with some of my buddies who went to college to play football … they’d talk about all of the meetings and everything that came along with it … I loved playing football but I didn’t necessarily love practicing football but I always really enjoyed baseball from the time I was a little kid.
I wasn’t like a highly-recruited baseball player out of high school. I was fortunate to have pretty good grades, a pretty awesome family that supported me and one of the best colleges in the country right down the road from where I grew up. I was able to get in touch with their coaches there. They saw me play and they recruited me and that’s kind of why I chose baseball over football.”
Philip Brua won nine of 10 decisions in a Vancouver Canadians uniform in 2011 and 2012.
Coaching Seed Planted
It was early in his playing career that Brua had an inkling that his baseball future lay elsewhere thanks to his first pro pitching coach Jim Czajkowski.
Actually, coach Czajkowski, he was the pitching coach with (Vancouver) in 2011 and 2012. I spent a lot of time in extended spring training with him. He and I started talking. He was always honest with me and said, ‘I think you’re a pretty good pitcher. I don’t think you’re playing days are very long ahead of you but you’re a pretty good student of the game. You obviously seem to love this stuff.’
I was always the guy who was coming out early and watching him work with the pitchers, coming out early and watching the starting pitcher warming up while a lot of guys stayed in the clubhouse. He kind of talked to me about that all during my first year and then during my second year … when we were in extended spring training, he would have me come—even on days when I wasn’t pitching—he would have me come and just kind of hang out, sit with the coaches and start to hear what they’re talking about … and see stuff from the other side. After watching him do that, I was pretty sold on this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Slinging from the Side
A sidearm hurler, Brua says Oberlin Yeomen coach Adrian Abrahamowicz helped develop his pitching style.
“Actually my college coach was a sidearm pitcher as well. I got recruited to go to college as a third baseman. I caught my first couple of years … and I would kind of mess around with it when I was playing catch and he noticed it one day.
My natural arm slot over-the-top was really compact, really short and as I dropped my arm angle, the arm swing kind of lengthened out a little, I got a little more leverage behind the ball, I was actually able to throw harder from the side than I could over the top. I just kind of had a knack for being able to throw strikes and throw the ball over the plate so changing my delivery, changing my arm slot didn’t really change that … In college, I could throw harder and still throw strikes from the side. It was a different look that not a lot of people had seen and I became more like a power pitcher.
When I got to the Blue Jays, I was more of a conventional sidearmer and they kind of called me into the office and asked me if I could drop down any lower so that I could be a little more effective against lefthanders to get more sink on the ball than run. So that’s what I did … I got lower, the sidearm, the velo dropped a little bit but I was able to be effective and kind of pitched to contact and get groundballs and throw the ball to the bottom part of the strike zone.”
First Pro Season
After signing with the Toronto Blue Jays as a free agent June 14, 2011, Brua made his pro debut six days later and earned the victory with two shutout innings of relief as the C’s knocked off the Yakima Bears at Nat Bailey Stadium. Brua’s first save came June 25 in Salem-Keizer where he struck out the lone batter he faced to preserve an 11-9 Vancouver victory. A pair of rough outings ballooned his earned run average to 11.12 at the end of June but he would whittle it down by over eight runs when the season ended.
A big month of July in which Brua recorded a 0.56 ERA to go along with two wins and three saves. Highlights included back-to-back saves in Spokane July 8 and July 9. The first game saw him strike out the game’s final batter with the bases loaded to help Vancouver win 9-7. The next night saw Brua strand two more runners and record the final four outs to preserve a 2-1 triumph. On July 24, he would toss three blank frames of one-hit ball to earn the win at home against Salem-Keizer.
The month of August saw Brua win three of four decisions with a 2.08 ERA and a save and he won the C’s penultimate game of the regular season by putting up a goose egg in Boise September 2. That was the final regular season win for the Canadians and they needed every victory to help them a clinch a second-half playoff berth on the season’s final day. Brua stranded two runners and pitched two-thirds of a shutout inning in Vancouver’s Game 1 loss to the visiting Eugene Emeralds. The C’s would rally to win the best-of-three West Division final by winning twice in Oregon. Despite getting charged with two runs in Game 3, Brua did get five precious outs to help the C’s reach the Northwest League Final.
Brua’s lone appearance in the final came in Game 2 back in Vancouver as he held off the Tri-City Dust Devils over 1-1/3 innings and stranding a runner in the process. Despite his best efforts, the C’s could not rally from a three-run deficit as the Dust Devils forced a winner-take-all in Game 3. The Canadians would take care of business the next day on a sunny Sunday afternoon to win the 2011 Northwest League championship.
Looking back on a 2011 season in which he went 7-1 with a 2.70 earned run average, Brua believes he received some good fortune on the balls that were put into play against him as evidenced by a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) mark of .242.
“I don’t know. I think a lot of it was luck. I was a contact pitcher and things just kind of bounced my way. … The other thing was I had like four walks in 40 innings that summer. I’m kind of a stat guy. Being a coach, I kind of know and pay attention to that stuff. Free passes kind of kill you. It’s something that I talk to my guys at the college level all that time about…. Eliminating free passes and making teams hit to score runs, I think that’s what made my pretty successful was just always being around the plate and not really walking or hitting guys.”
The 2012 season saw Brua return to Vancouver where he began the year with four straight scoreless outings, collecting home victories against Tri-City June 21 and June 23 in his Nat Bailey Stadium swan song. Five days later, Brua was promoted to the Lansing Lugnuts where he finished the year with a 3-1 record and a 5.36 ERA along with one save.
You are invited to listen to the entirety of this C’s Chat by checking out the video below. Brua touches upon his memories of pitching in Vancouver, pitching alongside future major leaguers such as Sanchez, Syndergaard, Nicolino and Rollins and his ongoing coaching career that included a stop at Pomona-Pitzer in California before returning to Ohio as the head coach of the NCAA Division III Hiram College Terriers.
Thanks a million again to Philip Brua for taking part in this latest instalment of C’s Chat. You can follow him on Twitter @PBrua_6.