Bill Bray pitched fewer than 10 innings last season, a frustration-packed year that led to only more frustration in the offseason. He never needed to rebuild his arm strength. But he needed to rework his mechanics, to undo what his injury had wrought. He strained his groin in early April, which begat back problems, which begat “flaws and bad mechanics,” Bray said.
Early in the winter, Bray went to work. He also searched for his 2013 team, and the Nationals, the team with which he had broken into the majors in 2006, kept calling. He had ample choices, but he liked the opportunity in a Nationals bullpen scarce with left-handers. He still knew so many coaches from his time there – Steve McCatty, Rick Eckstein, Randy Knorr, Bobby Henley.
“There’s just a really good familiarity with a lot of the people here,” Bray said. “Sometimes that’s a really good thing in this game.”
Bray, 29, signed a minor league deal with the Nationals in early December, and then he found out how much that familiarity can mean. It turned out Class A Potomac pitching coach Chris Michalak lived in the same Texas town as Bray. Even better, Michalak ended his career with the 2006 Cincinnati Reds, the team the Nationals traded Bray to halfway through his rookie year.
Bray had been working by himself all winter, and now he had a coach who knew him well enough to critique him. Michalak watched Bray throw and told him, “You don’t look the same.” Michalak suggested changes, “and all of a sudden the ball is jumping out a little bit better,” Bray said. “So I’m really excited, anxious.”
On Thursday, Bray threw his first bullpen session of the spring, and you could see how his mechanics may require a little more upkeep than other pitchers. He comes to his balance point, hitches his arm back to put the ball behind his ear and then explodes forward while folding himself in half. After his session, McCatty chatted with Bray and showed him different arm angles. Bray nodded along and mimicked McCatty.
The funky, fun-to-watch delivery helps make Bray hell on left-handers. He has held left-handed batters to a .218 batting average in his career, and the league in general has only hit .247 against him.
Bray has an excellent chance to make the Nationals’ 25-man roster if he can prove himself the same pitcher from prior to 2012. The Nationals have right-handed relievers who can retire lefties – Tyler Clippard, for one, has held them to a .182 average over his career. But Zach Duke is the only left-handed reliever on a major league deal in camp, and he is counted on to be a long man and, if necessary, a spot starter.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” Bray said. “If I stay healthy, really that’s all I’m worried about. A lot of people ask, ‘Do you expect to have good stats this year?’ I expect to be healthy. If I’m healthy, I’ll do my job. And I’m very confident that I’ll make this team.”
If he does, he’ll return to the city where his career began. The only players he remembers from his last spring training in Viera are Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Roger Bernadina. The Nationals then were adrift, still trying to find a foothold as an organization. Now they are the defending NL East champs.
“It’ll probably be easier to ask me in a month, but there’s just a different feeling,” Bray said. “The team is a lot younger than when I was here the first time. The team is having a lot of success. There’s a lot of high expectations. The caliber of ballclub is amazing. The talent in this room is incredible.”
There is also one difference that is even more obvious.
“The stadium is immaculate,” Bray said. “Although I liked RFK. It was a big ballpark. Not a bad spot to break in.”
FROM THE POST
Boz’s first column from the spring is a classic. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper are grown up and ready to carry the Nationals.
Drew Storen doesn’t need sympathy this spring; he just wants the ball again.
You have to got watch Brad Horn’s video on the bird that dropped a fish in the outfield and terrified Denard Span.
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DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY