In the Clutch, Brown Prevails

TACOMA, Wash. – While the Mariners are mired in mediocrity for another summer and the fan base grows tired of the losses, the disappointment and the boredom, the organization's Triple-A affiliate, located less than an hour's drive south of Safeco Field, is enjoying another pennant race, not unlike last season when they held on to the bitter end despite the hordes of big-league call-ups.

The M's battle cry for the 2005 campaign has been the nearly-forgotten "What a Show." Since the phrase that fits is a bit more along the lines of "What a Joke", the only winning in town is being done in the minor leagues, where the Everett Aqua Sox are competing for a postseason berth in the Northwest League and the Tacoma Rainiers are putting on a show of their own in the toughest league in the minors.

As Tacoma sits in first place after withstanding the dozens of roster moves affecting the daily lineup, skipper Dan Rohn gets a lot of well-deserved credit. But what about on the field? Who's picking up the slack? Who's coming up with the big hit? Who has the hero been for Tacoma?

Ask around the clubhouse and a very popular answer is "Hunter Brown."

The M's 22nd round pick out of Rice University is in his first season in the Pacific Coast League and after starting the year as the club's backup corner infielder, Brown has taken his game right where he's always believed it should be.

"It took me awhile to get comfortable," said Brown. "Not playing makes it tough but I knew as soon as I got regular play that I could hit."

He was right. The 25-year-old third baseman was hitting just .167 on May 10 and didn't crack the .250-mark until June 2.

Through games of August 19, Brown is hitting .292 with a .370 on-base percentage and a team-leading 27 doubles, which is a major accomplishment considering he was a reserve for much of the first quarter of the season. No. 26 is hitting .355 with runners in scoring position, including .302 with two outs. Now that's clutch.

But the pure numbers don't tell the story. Brown's performance speaks for itself but the impact is best measured right down to the last swing of every game – something the right-handed hitting Brown took full advantage of last Wednesday afternoon.

"It was tied at three, bottom of the 10th inning," said Brown in setting up the scenario. "Dobber comes up and leads off the 10th with a single and Leo bunts him over to second. And I'm thinking that with one out that they were going to walk me to set up the double play."

Brown was to face former big-leaguer Pat Mahomes, a hard-throwing right-hander with a solid breaking ball. But there was not going to be an intentional walk.

"Once it was clear that they weren't going to walk me, I figured I'm not going to get anything close," said Brown. "I know I'm going to see some offspeed pitches so I see three sliders in a row for balls. On 3-0 he throws me a slider for a strike for 3-1."

Brown was in a bit of a quandary at three balls and a strike. Does he look slider again knowing that they won't mind walking him to set up the double play possibility or will he look fastball just in case to give him the best shot to make something happen?

"I didn't want to miss a fastball just in case he came in there," said Brown. "He ended up missing, it was more middle in and he was trying to come inside, but he missed and I was able to hit it pretty good."

Evidently in the Brown family, hitting a baseball "pretty good" means spanking a fastball on a screaming line drive toward left-center field, surely enough to win the game for Tacoma.

The ball left the yard to hand the Rainiers a big victory to stay tied atop their division, but when the ball disappeared behind Cheney's left field wall, something had happened for Brown that had never happened before in his baseball life – a walk-off home run.

"Never done that before," said Brown. "Not even in pony leagues or anything. It didn't hit me until we are all back and settled in the clubhouse and I thought to myself ‘man that's pretty cool, I've never done that.'"

Brown's yard-hopping gapper to beat Las Vegas is just the latest example of how valuable he's been to the Tacoma club all season. When Justin Leone was called up to the big leagues in April, Brown filled in admirably and the Rainiers didn't miss a beat.

When Rohn needed a right-handed hitter to take over at first base for the lefty-hitting Aaron Rifkin, there was Brown to take over, just like clockwork.

Brown's true value to the Rainiers may still be determined as he leads Tacoma down the stretch of the PCL's Pacific North division pennant race. His consistent bat and all-out play has become contagious on a team without continuity thanks to the 69-loss parent club in Seattle.

Even defensively, Brown has handed his team a spark when the going was tough – including a sensational diving catch of a bunt attempt in the crucial five-game series versus Salt Lake, who sits just one game back of Tacoma.

So you're a 25-year-old Rice University graduate with a degree in Political Science who is putting on the finishing touches to a highly successful season in Triple-A – what might you wish for that could serve as the cherry on top?

"It would be cool if we could win the championship," said the always team-oriented Brown. "I just think that would be pretty special to be a part of. Obviously I'd like to go to the big leagues, but winning is what baseball is all about. I'll take it."

Brown isn't likely to get that call-up this season, but it won't be for a lack of effort, performance – or versatility. The Texas native has experience playing first and second base as well as his natural spot at the hot corner and has added a potential role for himself in which he'll work on in October.

"I asked Roger (Hansen, M's catching coordinator) if there was anything I could do," said Brown. "He got the gear on me and we tried it some and he liked what he saw, I guess."

Hansen must have liked what he saw. The M's are sending Brown to the Arizona Instructional League this fall to work on his catching skills for the three-week period.

Adding to his already growing value as a consistent, clutch performer, Brown piles on even more versatility to his game. As if the club needs another reason to adore Hunter Brown.
Jason A Churchill is the Executive Editor at InsidethePark.com and can be reached via e-mail at JasonAChurchill@InsideThePark.com


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