Sept. 21, 2016
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Even in the age of GPS there is no sure road to the big leagues.
Getting there when it’s unexpected is extra special. Jed Bradley, a left-handed pitcher currently relieving with the Atlanta Braves, and Jake Esch, a right-handed starter with the Miami Marlins, can attest to that as both made it to “The Show” as September call-ups after coming so close in college.
They’d been to Turner Field every year from 2009 through 2011, as Bradley and Esch went there with Georgia Tech to play Georgia in the Kauffman Tire Spring Classic, yet neither ever threw a pitch there.
It wasn’t an intentional slight. Bradley was a weekend starter — he’d already elevated to the weekend from midweek as a freshman — while Esch, who relieved as a freshman despite a sore shoulder, had moved to middle infield, playing at second base in 2010 and shortstop in 2011.
So it was interesting to see that in a three-day span, Bradley, now a reliever, and Esch, now a starter, got to pitch at Turner Field, Bradley on Sunday, Sept. 11, in his fourth career appearance for the Atlanta Braves against the New York Mets, Esch on Tuesday, Sept. 13 in his third start for the Marlins against the Braves.
“It was awesome. I used to come here when I was a kid with my granddad and we’d watch games,” said Bradley, who grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. “He was actually there watching me pitch. It was pretty special.”
Esch spoke on the 12th, the day prior to his getting a start and was riding high with anticipation.
“I’m glad I had that experience of being at short and second so I have at least some background here at Turner Field,” said the St. Paul, Minnesota, native. “It’ll be exciting to get out there. We’re still in the playoff hunt so I just got to go out there and hopefully get a win for us.”
As it would turn out, neither would figure in a decision in his Turner Field debut — Bradley went three innings, allowing two runs (both earned) on three hits, with a strikeout and a walk, and retiring the final seven hitters he faced, while Esch got a no-decision in a Marlins’ win, going 3 ⅔, allowing three runs (all earned), on seven hits, including two home runs, with two strikeouts and a walk — but getting to pitch at Turner Field, in the back yard of their college glory days, was exciting.
Seeing his two pupils return and in action certainly was a thrill for Georgia Tech Baseball Head Coach Danny Hall.
“It’s very exciting,” said Hall. “For Jacob to get there and then Jed to get traded then do very well in Double-A and Triple-A and then get a chance to come up, I’m very proud of both those guys and very excited that they’re finally up in the big leagues.”
Both took rather windy roads.
After compiling an 18-11 record for the Jackets, 7-3 with a 3.49 ERA as a junior, Bradley was drafted with the 15th overall pick in the 2012 June Draft by the Milwaukee Brewers. But he struggled his first year at Brevard County (High A), going 5-10 with a 5.53 ERA. In 2014, he got promoted to Double-A Huntsville, then to start 2015, he was moved into the bullpen, where he was solid at AA Biloxi (1-1, 3.21, 31 K’s in 32 ⅔ innings), but then took his lumps at Triple-A Colorado Springs (2-4, 9.00 in 20 games, with one start).
He’d begin 2016 back in Biloxi and struggling (3-2, 6.20 in 17 appearances) before being traded to the Braves on June 2.
With the change of organization, came a change of luck. He was moved back into the starting rotation with the Mississippi Braves and went 4-3 with a 2.35 in 15 games with 10 starts. He then dominated at AAA Gwinnett (2-0, 1.50, three runs, 14 hits in 18 innings), and on Sept. 1, found himself on the way to his third level of the season, the Majors, where he joined the team on the way to Philadelphia.
“You couldn’t really script a year much better for me,” Bradley said. “A lot of times the journey to get where you want to go doesn’t look the way you think it’s going to look, but right now I don’t think about the past. I don’t think about tomorrow. I just think about today and what I can do to get better and what I can do to help my team. It’s been a pretty good recipe so far.”
Things got even better on Sept. 3, when he entered the game in the bottom of the ninth at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia with the game tied 4-4. He’d retire the side in order, then was the beneficiary when Atlanta scored two runs in the top of the 10th and held the Phillies scoreless in the bottom half.
“I was really, really relieved when they called my name to go and pitch because at that point I’d been waiting two or three days. It felt like two or three months,” he said, with a laugh. “After I was like, `Wow. That just happened?'”
Bradley heads into the season’s final two weeks with a 1-1 record and a 5.68 ERA (four earned runs in 6 ⅓ innings) on seven hits with six walks and four strikeouts in five appearances.
“I’m getting more comfortable every time I go out there,” he said. “It’s Major League hitters, you’re doing a lot of things you’ve never done before. So there’s definitely a learning curve but it’s feeling better every time I go out. I’m adjusted in my new role.
“As a starter you kind of unleash it all in one day then you have four or five days to work out, regroup, recharge your batteries,” he added. “But you could have a good outing as a reliever one night and enjoy it for a few hours and then you have to say, `Okay. I’ve got to get ready to go tomorrow and do it again.'”
Hall isn’t surprised at Bradley’s ability to work through things.
“He did everything he could possibly do to get better,” he said. “If that meant everybody else was lifting for a half-hour, 45 minutes, he was probably in the weight room working out for an hour. He just did everything over and above what it was going to take for him to be the best at what he was trying to do.”
Esch’s road to the Majors also required him to work above and beyond. A dominant high school pitcher, he was limited by a sore shoulder as a freshman, then, in a team-first move, moved to middle infield, where he would stay.
That he was drafted as a pitcher was serendipitous.
“I pitched Jacob one inning in this intrasquad game and, if I remember right, he was 94, 95 (MPH),” recalled Hall. “The Marlins scout, a guy named Carmen Cartone, was here and saw that inning. Based on that inning, they drafted Jacob. They drafted him as a pitcher and the rest is history.”
Esch, who threw five innings over six games in 2011 out of the `pen for the Jackets (he allowed one run and four hits, a 1.60 ERA, striking out six and walking two), was taken in the 11th round, 343rd overall. He showed great promise and made Miami an even greater one.
“[Cartone] said, `This is one of the dumbest business decisions I’ve ever heard of,'” Esch recalled with a laugh. “I told him, `You’re getting a bargain because you’re getting a pretty good athlete.’ Those guys know what they’re doing. It wasn’t like they wasted a first-round pick on me. I’m glad they gave me the opportunity and they’ve continued to give me the opportunity since.”
It didn’t come easy, as after two solid seasons at the Gulf Coast League (2-0, 1.29 in four games) and A levels (1-1, 4.63 in eight games), Esch endured a rough 2013 at High-A Jupiter, going 2-10 with a 4.69 ERA.
“A lot of the failure, really you could call it stupid pitching,” he said. “It was just learning what I could and couldn’t do. That’s the developmental side. A lot of the guys that were college pitchers had an opportunity to do that in college. I never got the opportunity to do that in college so I had to do it in the minor leagues. Of course those guys are better than the college hitters. So you run into that.”
Getting smarter and getting good advice from his grandfather, a sports psychologist helped him make the adjustment.
“He helped me be able to maintain confidence through failure, but using failure as a method to learn,” he said. “In this game you fail, you learn, you get better. It’s really hard to because it can knock down your confidence in a real hurry. I talk to him all the time about things.”
Since 2014, Esch has had only one sub-.500 level and, in 2016, he began the year in Double-A Jacksonville, made the jump to Triple-A New Orleans, then, on Aug. 31, was called up to Miami.
It was a move that current Marlins teammate and former Yellow Jackets team- and roommate Derek Dietrich saw coming in Spring Training.
“He has really impressive stuff, he has a really live arm, he’s a very smart kid, one of the brightest baseball players you’ll find,” Dietrich said in late May during the Marlins’ visit to Turner Field. “If he just keeps doing what he’s doing and staying consistent there’s a good chance we may see him at some point this year.”
That point came on Aug. 31.
It’s been a learning experience, as in his three starts, Esch is 0-1 with a 5.54 ERA, allowing eight runs and 17 hits, including four homers, in 13 innings, with 10 strikeouts and six walks.
The first two homers, coming off breaking balls, led to Coach Hall texting him some advice.
“I said, `Hey, I had a chance to watch both of your starts. Very good, really, in both. Just two hanging breaking balls kind of got you in trouble,'” he said, with a laugh. “He texted me back something like, `I’m going to write that in my notes. No more hanging breaking balls.'”
“I laughed because both of them were hanging breaking balls,” Esch said. “The other side of the coin is most of my strikeouts have come via the breaking ball. A lot of my success getting ahead in the count, using the breaking ball has been a good thing for me so it’s not like I’m going to be shying away from it just because I gave up a couple of homers. Make mistakes they punish them, but if you make good pitches you have a pretty good chance to win the game.”
For Esch, starting in New York City and facing impressive Major League hitters wasn’t as intimidating as walking into his own clubhouse.
“The moment I walked in the clubhouse in New York City, when I walked in the first person I saw was Jose Fernandez. I said, `Holy cow! This is the big leagues. That’s Jose Fernandez!'” Esch recalled. “We were drafted together so I was familiar with him but at that point he was Jose Fernandez the teammate, not Jose Fernandez, the candidate for Cy Young, the guy you see on TV striking out 14 Dodgers.” That was the moment. I said, `This is it!'”
Being reunited with Dietrich, his freshman year roommate (who went 3-for-7 with two RBIs and two runs scored over the weekend), and Bradley, roommate sophomore year, last weekend was unique and a proud moment for the Georgia Tech grad.
“It’s really neat to have three Tech guys here on the same field at the same time,” said Esch.
Bradley agreed, crediting Hall’s program.
“They’ve done a great job of not only bringing in good players, but making them better when they get there. I was definitely an example of that,” he said. “I really blossomed when I was at school. I attribute that to the program, to the strength program and just the hours they invested in me, into what they saw in me moving forward. I think it’s pretty special to have an opportunity to play against guys you played with in college in the Major Leagues.”