Friday, June 5, 2015

Veteran Brija Ready for One Last Round in WCL

There are three traditional career aspirations for young boys around the age of six or seven: they want to be cowboys, firefighters, or athletes when they grow up. In the Sweets clubhouse, all of those career aspirations are represented, and all by the same man: Sean-Luke Brija.

Brija, 22, is gearing up for his final season of collegiate summer baseball and one more year of baseball at Gonzaga. Athlete, check. The redshirt senior graduated this spring and has a job interview coming up with a fire department west of the Cascades. Firefighter, check.

So, do his hobbies include Stetson hats and cattle drives?

"I'm a cowboy at heart, honestly," said Brija. "I still have a cowboy hat in my truck I wear every time I go driving."

That'll do.

The Reno native - who takes the mound to Johnny Cash's stomp-clap rendition of "God's Gonna Cut You Down" - looks the part of an Old West gunslinger on the diamond. He wears his cap low over his eyes, so the brim frequently casts them in shadow, and traces of the “closer's scowl” have worked their way into his default facial expression. Much like the gunmen of the frontier days, Brija laid down the law for the Sweets in 2013; he holds the club’s single-season records for appearances (22), earned run average (1.09), and saves (13), the latter of which is a WCL record he shares with two other players.

“It took me about ten minutes to figure out what kind of person Sean-Luke is,” said Sweets manager Frank Mutz. “He is a born leader, and he has taken it upon himself to lead our pitching staff and our ball club.”

Once he steps off the field, his stern outer shell melts into an easy smile, but the strong and determined individual remains, along with a work ethic that takes him to some odd places, like the disused swimming pool behind the Sweets clubhouse.

"Our first day, first practice, we showed up about an hour and a half beforehand," said hitting coach Jimmy Milkovich. "There was a guy just sitting in the pool, throwing objects out of the pool, jumping out of the pool, and we didn't know who it was. When we were coming back, coach [Mutz] said, ‘I think that’s Sean-Luke.’"

It was indeed Brija, who the two Chaminade Prep coaches were meeting for the first time. With his YMCA membership through the team yet to be processed, the right-hander still wanted to get as much of his routine in as he could.

"I just needed a place to work out, and it looked like a good place to work out," Brija said with a shrug.

The right-hander’s unorthodox exercise left a positive first impression on the staff, and his performance in practice built on that to the point that Mutz has given him a special opportunity. When the Sweets take the field tonight against the Medford Rogues, Brija will be the starting pitcher, something he will do for the first time in his WCL career and just the third time since becoming a college pitcher.

“He’s getting the ball, yes, because he’s a returning player and a crowd favorite here in Walla Walla, but he’s also a very good pitcher,” said Mutz. “I’m trying to figure out where we are, ranking wise, and he’s at the top of my list right now.”

The outing doesn’t expect to be a long one for Brija, a career reliever who Mutz sees as one of three possible closers for this year’s team, alongside Travis Ulvestad and the yet-to-arrive Max Gamboa. Starting Brija on opening night makes a statement, though: this is Sean-Luke’s team to lead, and wherever he factors into the pitching scheme, he will take that leadership with him.

"I really want to present myself as a leader," he said. "I'm the oldest guy on the team. I've been around. This is my fourth summer season. I know what summer ball is all about. I feel like I've had some good experiences, and I have a lot to bring to the table for these young guys."

"He really took it upon himself when he got here to talk to the younger pitchers and get them going in the right direction as far as working out, doing things during pregame warm-ups, playing catch, and all the little things the pitchers need to do," said Milkovich. "He has really taken on a leadership role without anybody telling him, and the younger guys have started gravitating towards him." The “younger guys” include Ulvestad, a redshirt freshman at San Francisco, who saw Brija pitch when the Dons stacked up against Gonzaga earlier this spring.

“He obviously knows his stuff,” Ulvestad said. “He’s a really good guy to just learn as much as I can from and take all his knowledge and see how he does things. You can pick up one or two things from him, or more, and you don’t want to miss that opportunity.”

In addition to Ulvestad, nine pitchers on the team’s full roster are rising college sophomores or lower, and all of them will have plenty of chances to learn from Brija not just in mechanics or conditioning, but in philosophy, as well.

“My goal is just to have fun,” Brija said. “That’s really why I wanted to come back to Walla Walla for my last season.”

“I’m getting a little bit older,” he says with a smile, “and I’m realizing that baseball is supposed to be fun. You’re supposed to have fun playing baseball, and that’s really what I want to do this summer is just have a lot of fun.”

Brija had quite a bit of fun against the Rogues in 2013, when he collected four saves in five appearances and allowed no runs and just two hits over 5.2 innings. I brought his handiwork against Medford to his attention at practice on Thursday.

“I think they’re going to remember that, ” I said.

“Yeah,” he said without missing a beat. “I think they will, too.”

Needless to say, Sean-Luke Brija will have to lay down the law again in 2015, and there's no reason to think he won't be ready right from the outset.

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