Brandon Belt Leading Horns with Bat

Junior first baseman Brandon Belt is leading the Longhorns with a .338 batting average. Belt, a part-time reliever last season for the ‘Horns, has focused his efforts this season at first base and at the plate and it has paid off for Belt. Burnt Orange Beat spoke with the multi-talented left-hander on his season and his prospects for the future.

After the 2007 graduation of three-year starting first baseman Chance Wheeless, the Texas Longhorns were left searching for a successor.

No returning player had experience at the position. None of the incoming high school recruits could play first base.

The Longhorns then turned to the junior college ranks, where they signed Brandon Belt, who had just finished his freshman season at San Jacinto College.

Inserted into the Texas starting lineup on opening day, Belt proved he belonged from the start. The slugger led the team in non-conference play, posting a .431 batting average in his first 14 games.

But Belt fell into a prolonged slump when the team needed him most. While the Longhorns posted a disappointing 15-12 record in Big 12 Conference play last season, Belt batted just .250 with only seven extra-base hits in 100 at-bats.

He isn't letting that happen again. This season, Belt has not only been one of the club's most consistent hitters, but he is also improving as the year progresses. The Lufkin native currently leads the Longhorns with a .338 average, but that number has risen to .361 in Big 12 games.

The first baseman isn't letting the game's peaks and valleys get to his head.

"It's totally mental," Belt said of his consistency. "I just thought to myself that anything could happen. It's a long season. Just because I start off slow doesn't mean I'm going to end up slow. I'm going to have plenty of time to go out there and raise my average up."

This season is also the first that Belt has ever played solely as a position player.

A part-time relief pitcher last season, Belt went 1-0 with a 4.02 earned-run average in 16 appearances.

During the offseason, Longhorns coach Augie Garrido believed Belt could benefit by focusing on just one aspect of the game. With perhaps the nation's most talented pitching staff, Garrido felt Belt's impact bat was where he would be most needed.

Still, Belt misses being able to take the mound.

"I've pitched my whole life, so it's a part of me," said Belt. "It's a part of me that's not going on right now. I mean, I miss it a little bit, but I'm here to help the team any way I can. Right now that's by just hitting, so that's what I'm doing."

Belt has actually been regarded as a better prospect as a pitcher for the majority of his career, and that may still ring true.

The left-hander signed a letter of intent with UT out of Lufkin's Hudson High School in 2006 -- as a pitcher. He was regarded as one of the top prep pitchers in the state of Texas, but after losing some velocity during his senior season, he dropped all the way to the Red Sox in the 11th round of the '06 MLB Draft.

Hoping to re-gain his low-90s fastball and sign a pro contract after one collegiate season, Belt instead opted for the junior college ranks.

Although Belt was solid on the mound at San Jacinto, leading the Gators to the Junior College World Series and going 7-2 with a 2.82 earned-run average, he outshined himself at the plate, posting a .441 batting average and socking 10 home runs.

Just one year after being selected in the 11th round as a pitcher, the Atlanta Braves took Belt in the 11th round of the 2007 MLB Draft -- this time as a hitter.

That's when the Longhorns came back into the picture.

Garrido signed Belt to play first base, and the slugger went on to dominate the Texas Collegiate League -- a summer wood-bat league for college players -- by hitting .340 and leading the Coppell Copperheads to the 2007 TCL Championship.

Since arriving on the 40 Acres, Belt hasn't stopped hitting.

The 2009 MLB Draft is just over a month away, and Belt will be eligible for the third time in his young career. Still just a junior, Belt has the option of returning to school for his senior season.

The 21-year-old also has other options. Once Belt signs a pro contract, he may never pick up a bat again. Or he could forget pitching altogether. It all depends on who selects him.

"I hear stuff around that certain teams like me better as a pitcher and other teams like me as a hitter," he said. "It doesn't really matter to me. As long as I get to play, I'm pretty happy."

Two-way players like Belt have a distinct advantage going into professional baseball. Major League organizations will often turn position players into pitchers -- and vice versa -- if their development stalls. Belt enjoys having the extra options.

"It takes a little bit of the pressure off," Belt explained. "My dream my whole life has been to play Major League Baseball. And I'm going to do everything in my abilities to reach that goal. If something happens to where I'm not able to perform or something like that, I've still got another option."

But for now, Belt is focusing on his duties with the Longhorns. Belt has used his extra time this season to work on hitting the ball where it's pitched.

"When I started going downhill a little bit last year, I got a little pull happy and I was going around everything," he said. "So I've just started trying to stay inside the ball, put the barrel of the bat on the ball, and just let it go where it wants to go.

"After I hit the ball, I can't control where it goes or what happens, so I just try to hit it the best I can."

And Belt is hitting it pretty well for his Texas club. Despite last weekend's disappointing 0-2-1 result against Kansas State, the ‘Horns are currently 30-11-1 and ranked eighth in the nation.

Texas entered last weekend on top of the Big 12, but now they're in the thick of a five-team logjam at the top of the conference. Heading into the series against Baylor this weekend, Belt doesn't feel any extra pressure on the team.

"It doesn't put a whole lot of pressure on us," he said. "We actually didn't play that badly last weekend. They just played a little bit better. If we keep on playing the way we're playing, we're still in good shape to win a bunch of ballgames."

"We have a lot of confidence right now, so we're just going to go out and play our games."


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