Braymer tries to make the most of fill-in start for Nats

JUPITER, Fla. - Ben Braymer was told a few days ago to be prepared to start against the Marlins today, so the minor league lefty wasn’t completely caught off guard this morning when he officially learned he’d be on the mound to start a Grapefruit League game for the first time.

That didn’t diminish his enthusiasm for this assignment.

“Anytime you get a chance to start a game with the regulars behind you, that’s exciting,” he said. “I just got a little amped up.”

With Max Scherzer held back in West Palm Beach due to what the three-time Cy Young Award winner described as an “ailment” on his right side, the Nationals needed a fill-in starter against Miami. Braymer, an 18th-round pick from the 2016 draft who was properly lined up to pitch today regardless, got the call.

Braymer-Waves-AFL-Fall-Stars-Game-Sidebar.jpgAnd he acquitted himself well, under the circumstances. Braymer escaped a first-inning jam, pitched a scoreless second and thought he might get through the third unscathed before his pitch count got too high to continue.

He finished with two runs allowed (one of them crossing the plate after he departed) on six hits, with a couple of strikeouts and zero walks during what wound up a 3-2 loss to the Marlins.

“He was a little amped up,” manager Davey Martinez said. “But he attacks the strike zone. I thought he did well. I think he’s going to be OK.”

After breakthrough performances in Single-A and Double-A the last two seasons, Braymer earned a spot on the Nationals’ 40-man roster over the winter and his first invitation to big league camp. He pitched twice out of the bullpen previously, then got bumped up to the starting assignment today, getting the opportunity to be on the field with most of the Nats’ regular position players.

Kurt Suzuki was behind the plate. Ryan Zimmerman, Starlin Castro, Trea Turner, Juan Soto and others were in the field.

“I kind of wanted to get him to start the game, just to see how he reacts,” Martinez said. “And he did really well.”

Braymer still finds himself down the Nationals’ pitching depth chart. Even if Joe Ross and Austin Voth make the opening day roster, he’d still likely fall in place behind Erick Fedde, Wil Crowe and Kyle McGowin. But the organization has high hopes for Braymer, especially if he can overcome the terrors of pitching in the Pacific Coast League.

After posting a 2.51 ERA and 0.975 WHIP in 13 starts for Harrisburg early last season, Braymer was promoted to Triple-A Fresno. He quickly found out what so many other pitchers in that hitter-friendly league find out: In 13 starts, his ERA skyrocketed to 7.20, his WHIP to 1.933.

“That definitely tried me mentally,” he said. “That was the most trying stretch of my career for the first, probably, six weeks of being out there.”

Braymer said at some point he was able to take a step back and realized he belonged in that league, even if the numbers didn’t suggest it. He loosened up, enjoyed himself more and became popular among teammates.

“That was my biggest takeaway from Fresno: Things are going to go bad sometimes,” he said. “When that happens, you just have to stick to the process and keep working and know that eventually things are going to turn around.”

He’s tried to maintain that same mindset this spring in a clubhouse full of veterans still celebrating a World Series title. He knows he won’t be among that group much longer, a demotion to minor league camp coming soon. Until that happens, he’ll try to make the most of this opportunity.

“I just try to be a sponge and soak it all up,” Braymer said. “It’s been fun, too. I don’t think I would say I thought this wouldn’t be fun. But I guess it’s a good surprise. Everybody has been enjoying themselves and working hard. It’s just been a fun go so far.”

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