VIERA, Fla. - A few years ago, Brandon Mann was living in the Washington D.C., area, watching Stephen Strasburg dominate in his first season in the majors while Mann tried to scrap together a career on the diamond himself.
A former 27th-round pick of the Rays, Mann’s baseball journey took him from Double-A ball in 2009 to Independent League ball in 2010 to Japan in 2011. The left-hander played two the last two years for the Yokohama Bay Stars in Japan, working his way up from the minors to the big leagues.
Now, Mann finds himself back in the States, in a big league camp with the Nationals and sharing the same clubhouse as the young phenom he watched and rooted for three years ago.
This spring has been an adjustment for Mann, much as it was an adjustment learning how things are done in Japan. He could have opted to stay in the States and play Independent League ball in 2011, but instead decided to take a chance abroad in an effort to prolong his career.
“My last year over here I had struggled and was kind of just unhappy with the situation I was in,” Mann said. “(Japan) was a lot of fun. The baseball was good. I thought the culture was fun to kind of adapt to and picking up the language. But I think that as a baseball player, they’re so big on fundamentals and all of that kind of stuff that it did kind of help me reach that next level.
“Going over there, you face good competition. You don’t face the type of competition, obviously, that you face here, but you face the atmosphere. I pitched in front of 40, 45,000. Just to get that experience so that when that happens here, I’m a little bit more ready for it.”
Mann says he dove right into both the culture and the different approach toward baseball while in Japan. He immediately tried to pick up the language, explored restaurants and welcomed a workout schedule in which pitchers do lots of throwing and long-tossing and are put through fielding drills on a daily basis.
“Every bullpen is 100 percent. They really focus on that,” Mann said. “We’d do (pitchers’ fielding practice) for an hour a day, every day. Even when you’re in the big leagues over there, you do it for about 30 minutes every day. It helped me to, I guess, just have a better work ethic, taking things more seriously instead of just going through the motions. ...
“It’s hard, because I’ve had to slow myself down a little bit (over here), because the way we would do our camps over there, I would get done at 4 p.m. after starting at 9 a.m. That’s the big league camp over there. It’s a different speed. You long-toss twice, each PFP session is 30 minutes. It’s crazy. But it’s been fun here.”
In contrast to that schedule, the Nationals’ workouts typically last less than two hours during the early stages of camp. Pitchers throw two or three times a week and are on strict time and pitch limits in order to prevent injury or fatigue. They’re put through fielding drills for the first couple weeks, but those sessions are brief and rarely take place once the season is underway.
Mann has been a starter for the vast majority of his professional career, but he’s in camp with the Nationals working as a reliever, hoping to overcome long odds and eventually make his way to the big leagues for the first time in his career.
Making the transition from starting to relieving doesn’t seem to concern Mann, partly because of the larger transition from Japanese baseball to American baseball and also partly because he’s had success as a reliever in the past. The 28-year-old made 10 relief appearances with Yokohama in 2011, throwing 12 1/3 scoreless innings.
“I pitched better as a reliever,” Mann said. “I definitely had some good starts, but we were such a terrible team over there. Being a reliever, I enjoyed it. I kind of have an idea of how to get ready properly, so I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.”
Mann might have a tough time getting innings in spring, and he finds himself behind fellow lefties Bill Bray, Will Ohman and Fernando Abad on the depth chart. Still, Mann is approaching this camp with a positive attitude. He’s battled his way from Independent League ball to a big league camp, and is eager to see where he ends up next.
“Honestly, (getting an invitation to Nationals camp) was a feeling of all the hard work that I’d put in, it’s finally paying off,” Mann said. “All the offseasons of training, and even going through what I had to go through over there, I spent my first year over there, five months in the minor leagues of just doing boot camp, basically. And then when I finally got called up over there, I was ready for it. I’ve got to say, when I came over here, I was ready for this. I know that I’m capable of filling the role that the Nationals have asked me to fill or to fight for. That experience over there definitely helped me to get ready for this.
“There’s a lot of great guys in here, a lot of great talent, but I know that if I go out there and do what I’m capable of, hopefully it works out for me.”