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Branham's character survives a nightmare

MIKE READLING
Published May 27, 2004

TAMPA - Mike Branham showed up. He walked into the interview tent at Legends Field, his uniform dirtied from his short stint in Jesuit's Class 3A semifinal, and sat down.

Branham held his head high, knowing his biggest baseball nightmare still had a couple more twists before he could wake up, wipe off the cold sweat and put it all behind him.

He didn't have to, but Mike Branham showed up.

It might not seem like much, but consider that two other Jesuit players declined a trip to the interview tent after the Tigers' 3-1 loss. Branham's presence proved why he was - and still should be - considered one of the premier high school pitchers in the nation.

Pitching is more than throwing strikes and compiling ERAs. Especially if you hope to make a career of it in college or the pros, as does Branham, who will play for the University of Florida next year.

It's also being mature enough to accept mistakes and face criticism, no matter how tough it is at the time.

It was tough Wednesday night.

More than 3,000 people crowded around Legends Field to watch this Jesuit right-hander, the latest in a long line of Tiger pitchers to raise major-league eyebrows. They wanted to see the 94 mph fastball set up the biting curve, and all the Pensacola Catholic batters flail uselessly.

They wanted to see what all the talk was about with this kid who had scouts crammed onto a stairway outside the Jesuit press box two weeks ago while he worked in the bullpen. They wanted to see what an 11-1 record and 0.88 ERA looked like in person.

What they saw was the power of the mind. Wednesday night was a lesson in just how much mental toughness comes into play on a pitchers mound.

Branham's first pitch of the game sailed about five feet behind Pensacola Catholic leadoff hitter Shane Moye and all the way to the backstop. Brett Bentley tossed the ball back, and Branham tried to shake it off.

He tried to regroup and refocus. In the back of his mind, though, that was about the worst thing that could happen. The second pitch was high and tight but Moye swung, the count was 1-1 and, everyone thought, maybe the nerves were gone.

Everyone but Branham.

Five of the next eight pitches would sail to the backstop. Bentley was able to corral two others.

That strike to Moye was one of two Branham would record before coach John Crumbley pulled him in favor of Sam Dyson, the sophomore who had been warming up in the bullpen since before the game.

Two batters, two walks, two runs. In front of one of the most influential crowds to see him pitch this season, he was gone after 10 pitches.

If anyone had the right to kick a water cooler, it was Branham.

But he stayed in the dugout. When the Tigers came off the field at the end of the inning and met as a group in front of the dugout, Branham was there.

He stayed the entire game, cheered his team on, listened in on each meeting, hoped his team could somehow crawl out of the hole he dug. It couldn't.

After the game, when he knew he was going to be pressed for a reason, Mike Branham showed up.

He said he didn't know what was wrong. He said it started during a bullpen session Saturday and just stuck in his head for some reason. It had gone on all week.

No, this has never happened before. No, he wasn't hurt. Yes, he adjusted the best he could. Erratic was the word he chose.

He didn't dodge questions. He didn't look down at his cleats and answer with a whisper. He didn't look to Crumbley to protect him. There were no tears seeping from his eyes.

It turned out the best performance Mike Branham gave Wednesday night took place behind Legends Field in a hot, blue tent, sitting on a chair with the New York Yankees logo on it. All he had to do was show up.

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