It happened in a meaningless game, on a field scattered with minor leaguers, but for one inning Corey Brown showed a flash of why the Nationals traded Josh Willingham for him and Henry Rodriguez last winter.
In the bottom of sixth inning against Detroit today in Lakeland, Brown sprinted into the right field corner and made a spectacular diving catch. Then Brown came to the plate in the seventh and clobbered a home run off Tigers closer Jose Valverde. Brown had shown, in a matter of minutes, the athleticism and potential for power the Nationals saw when he played in Oakland’s minor league system, the things they saw so rarely last year.
Brown, 26, will not be making the Nationals’ roster out of spring training. He’s here to re-establish himself as a possible part of the Nationals’ future, put his first season with the organization behind him and, most of all, stay healthy.
A year removed from the trade, Brown is playing with a clearer mindset. At Class AAA Syracuse last season, Brown batted in the bottom of the lineup and, by mid-July, his average hovered a point or two above .200.
“Being part of a trade, I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself,” Brown said. “I felt like I had to meet a certain standard. When you’re a part of a trade that has Willingham, you want to make sure you do good. There was times during the year where I just put a lot of pressure on myself. It obviously hurt.”
It didn’t help that Brown badly sprained his ankle last spring while sliding into home plate in the second game of the spring. He missed the remainder of spring training, and his ankle had still not fully healed when he arrived. As he struggled, he put and more pressure on himself until finally, late in the season, he relaxed. He finished the season hitting .235/.326/.402, ugly stats, but something of an accomplishment given how low he sunk during the year.
“I think his August month last year he kind of freed himself up a little bit,” said Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr, the manager at Syracuse last season. “If you look back he had a really good August for us. It’s just a matter of freeing him up. I think coming over from being in a trade to come over, that puts a lot of pressure on guys and some guys handle it better than others at the beginning.”
Brown’s late surge earned a call-up, but another injury ruined that for him, too. Brown appeared in three games as a pinch-hitter, striking out twice, before the Nationals diagnosed him with a staph infection. He had surgery to clear up the infection, ending his season.
This winter, Brown discovered the infection was actually MRSA, a nastier form of a staph infection. Doctors thought they may need to operate on Brown again, but he wiped out the infection with stronger antibiotics.
“It turned out to be a little uglier than expected,” Brown said. “But right now, I’m fine.”
The episode in the past, Brown has tried to forget about it. He has no nasty injuries to deal with, no self-imposed unfair expectation hanging over his head. Nationals officials have never really seen him play at his capability, and he wants to show them more days like today.
“Last year wasn’t must success,” Brown said. “I’m not trying to worry about that or what happened this offseason.
“But last year is in the past. I learned a lot from it. I’m just trying bounce back this year. Rizzo and Davey and those guys, they haven’t seen me play yet. So I’m just trying to come out here and play hard every day. The whole point this year is to get back up.”