After playing in relative obscurity while growing up, the Jesuit pitcher takes the spotlight in tonight's semifinal.
TAMPA - From the time he was 6 years old, Mike Branham played baseball at Citrus Park Little League. Not that anybody really ever talked about it, though.
Sure, Branham always had a decent arm, but his hitting was okay and his speed in the outfield was, well, he wasn't the fastest kid at the park. What he could lay claim to was being one of the smallest kids on his team.
He made All-Stars every year, though he attributes that to a great arm and the outstanding ability to ... catch the ball.
"I've always been an average baseball player," Branham said.
Not exactly the groundwork for someone who would someday become one of the most dominant pitchers in the state.
Then came the growth spurt. The 7-inch jump to his current 6-foot, 3-inch frame that has become almost legendary now that the Jesuit senior has struck out 262 in 137 innings over the past two seasons.
Branham thinks back to all those parents who used to crowd around the bleachers at Citrus Park talking about which one of their 12-year-olds had the best chance to become the next Brad Radke or Dwight Gooden or Gary Sheffield.
The conversation never centered on him.
"I've told a couple of people that it's always been someone else's kid," said Michael Branham, Mike's father and Little League coach. "All of a sudden, here we are."
The four Branhams - including mother Lori and 14-year-old Jesuit-bound brother Sam - are two games from having the major-league draft heat turned from medium-high to broil.
When Jesuit plays Pensacola Catholic in tonight's Class 3A state semifinal at Legends Field at 8, Branham will be on the mound and scouts will be scattered throughout the stands.
They will watch him throw in the bullpen. They will watch him walk from the dugout to the third-base line during introductions. And they will take notes as he ascends the mound in the bottom of the first inning.
When Jesuit played Clearwater Central Catholic this year, scouts lined the fence around the bullpen, trying to keep tabs on the fastball that can reach the low to mid 90s.
"It's been overwhelming for our whole family because I wasn't used to this. I mean, this didn't start until the Diamond Club at USF in November," Branham said. "It's just grown since then. Every game I've pitched they've come to see me. Then they bring someone else who's higher up in the organization to come see me and it's just been growing."
If Jesuit wins, the scouts will be put on hold for another game.
"We've discussed (the draft) but it's something where we're just going to finish the season out right now," Branham said. "We know after this week it's going to pick up and there will be a lot more discussion about rounds and money. It's a hard decision, but whatever happens I can still go to the University of Florida and pitch there."
Pitching is really all Branham wants to do. And, just to back that up, he has replaced all of his Ken Griffey Jr. memorabilia - including the life-sized standup - with that of Mark Prior, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling.
It is the position his father has envisioned him playing since he was little.
"He just always had the arm. You can look at a kid and tell," he said.
It is the position Jesuit coach John Crumbley knew he had filled for the next three years after seeing Branham throw a couple times.
"The first time I saw him was when he came out here as a thin, slender freshman. He had good arm action and threw strikes," Crumbley said.
It is the position that allowed him the best chance to progress to the next level. It could be the only reason Branham's wearing a Jesuit jersey right now.
"I could always throw a lot of strikes," Branham said. "When I came (to Jesuit) I remember the reason I made the Legion team my freshman year was because I went out there and I think I threw every one for a strike."
Legion coach Gary Garcia remembers the day: "Twelve pitches, 12 strikes," he said.
That was the beginning of a career that started with a win over Lakewood Ranch in the Sarasota Classic three years ago, spans a record of 22-3 (including an undefeated record at home) and takes one, final step tonight.
The state semifinal start will be the latest accomplishment in a lifetime of pitching that has seen the small kid in the outfield nobody talked about turn into the sturdy fireballer everyone will either be whispering about or clocking with a radar gun.
It also will be the only place Branham wants to be. Especially after watching from the dugout for the better part of last year's state semifinal as his team struggled with Miami Belen.
"It was hard not to pitch in that game," Branham said. "And, by the time I did, it was too late."
If there's one thing Branham has proved so far is that it is never too late. Whether you're talking about growing or making up for last year.
Tonight he gets his chance.AMONGTHEBEST
Jesuit High has been a pitcher's paradise for years. Future major-leaguers Brad Radke and Marc Valdes, along with first-round draft picks Geoff Goetz and Sam Marsonek (not to mention Troy Carrasco, who was picked in the third round in 1993) all were on the mound at Paul Straub Field. Here's a brief look at how Mike Branham's numbers match up.
This season Branham averages 2.01 strikeouts per inning. During the senior year in which he was drafted sixth overall in the major league draft, Goetz averaged 1.79 strikeouts.
Marsonek's senior year ERA was 1.02. Branham enters tonight's game with a 0.88 ERA. Radke holds the school record of 0.31 for a season.
The school record for strikeouts in a game is 18, held by Carrasco and Ryan Gloger who, like Branham, is a Citrus Park Little League product. Branham reached 16 twice this season and had 15 once. In one of those 16-strikeout games, Justin Menendez hit a grand slam, ending the game because of the 10-run rule and causing Branham to not pitch the final inning.
The school record for strikeouts in a season is 186. Branham has 160.
In a 1996 region final against Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons, Marsonek struck out 13 and didn't allow a run until the seventh inning. In his two regional tournament appearances, Branham struck out a total of 26 and held both opponents scoreless.
- Compiled by Mike Readling.