Orioles' Brad Brach talks about the upcoming season, free agency, and his family. (Eduardo A. Encina, Baltimore Sun video)
SARASOTA, FLA. — The news couldn’t have come at a less convenient time. When Brad Brach learned he had been designated for assignment by the San Diego Padres after the 2013 season, it was just 10 days before his wedding.
The Padres were the team that drafted him. And Brach didn’t need to be told that second chances don’t often come along for players drafted in the 42nd round as he had been. He was just one of two players drafted in that round in 2008 to sniff the majors. He wasn’t a high-pick bonus baby — his signing bonus was about $600 after taxes — so it took more success than for most to climb each rung of the minor league ladder.
But five days after he was essentially let go by the Padres, Brach received a call that would change his life and that of his future wife, Jenae. He had been traded to the Orioles. Brach was ecstatic.
“He was so fired up,” Jenae said. “It was like a dream come true for him to go there.”
Growing up in Freehold, N.J., he was a New York Mets fan, and part of that allegiance was hating all things New York Yankees. So Brach adopted the Orioles as his American League team. The Brach family photo albums have pictures of a teenage Brad wearing a Cal Ripken Jr. jersey. Count him among those still tortured by Jeffrey Maier’s interference in Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series.
“To this day, I still don’t understand the ruling or how it was,” Brach said. “But I wished they had replay because you never know how that series would have ended.”
The move to the Orioles started a remarkable journey for the newlyweds, one in which Brach transformed from a meandering middle reliever to one of the best late-inning pitchers in the AL. Over the past four seasons, Brach — who will turn 32 on April 12 — has grown not only as a pitcher but also a teammate, a husband and, most recently, a father.
In December, the Brachs celebrated the birth of their first child, a girl they named Brilee Kay. Next offseason, another successful season will lead to the opportunity every professional baseball player strives for — the chance to pick his own destination through free agency.
But it’s been during Brach’s time with the Orioles when everything’s come into focus for his family. Jenae, a country music songwriter and recording artist, released her first album in 2016 (she released it under her maiden name, Jenae Cherry) less than three months before Brach became one of the unlikeliest All-Stars, selected to pitch in that season’s midsummer classic in his old home ballpark in San Diego.
Brach will likely be asked to make the jump to the closer role to open this season with Zach Britton on the disabled list recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon. Brach also filled in for Britton for the majority of last season, converting 18 of 22 save opportunities as closer. He was also charged with two other blown saves pitching in a setup role.
Given the lucrative contracts that late-inning relievers have received in the past two offseasons, Brach could set himself up for a significant pay day when he becomes a free agent at the end of this season.
“At the end of the day, you know that it can set you and your family up,” Brach said. “But just being a late-round draft pick like I was, I never thought I’d get the opportunity to get to this point where I can — after this year — choose where I want to play or see what teams want me. … Not just for me personally, but for the team, it’s a big year. We have big expectations, so I’m just trying to really focus on that and not really worry about what happens after this year.”
A quiet fire
Bullpens are full of different personalities. And Brach isn’t like the loquacious Britton. He’s not like sage bullpen leader, right-hander Darren O’Day. In fact, when Brach first joined the Orioles bullpen, they thought he was a mute.
“The first two months he was on the team, he didn’t say anything to anybody, so it took a little while for him to break out of his shell a little bit,” O’Day said.
But Brach’s quiet demeanor shouldn’t be confused with his not being competitive. The desire to prove himself, and win at everything he does, was entrenched in Brach since he was a 42nd-round pick. From his first pro season, he prepared himself for the likelihood that he would never make the majors. When he was drafted by the Padres out of Monmouth, he found himself playing alongside 17- and 18-year-olds in Rookie ball.
Under the advice of his mother, Mary, Brach went back to school after his first professional season to get his degree in education. After Rookie ball, he spent his final semester student teaching. If baseball didn’t work out, Brach would be teaching high school history and helping coach basketball. After the next season — his first of three straight in which he posted at least 33 saves in the minors — Brach returned to New Jersey and served as a volunteer assistant basketball coach at his old high school. He was still living at home in the offseason.
“I think it’s one of those things that just still drives me, especially when I hear a lot of the outsiders say that I didn’t do that well in the closer role last year,” Brach said. “That’s one of those things that brings me back to when I got drafted. It’s one of those things where nobody says it to you, but you can just kind of feel it.”
On a recent morning, Brach was one of the few players who remained in Sarasota as the team played back-to-back games on Florida’s East Coast. He would be pitching in a minor league game later in the day, but was still fueling his competitive fire beforehand by playing table tennis against teammates. He muttered under his breath after every missed shot, then after playing updated the standings for an impromptu tournament that was underway.
“He’s extremely competitive,” O’Day said. “I can tell you that from the golf course. He grew up with two brothers, so that breeds competitiveness. So yeah, everything is competition and he takes pride in what he does.”
“Somehow, the guy is good at literally everything,” Jenae said. “It’s so annoying. And my family is super competitive and so is his. He is just always pushing himself. … Even board games, he always finds a way to win. He’s always been that way ever since I’ve known him. He’s always used [getting drafted low] to push him to get better.”
With that competitiveness comes the fact that Brach is his own biggest critic. He conceded that he allowed blown saves to linger last season, which contributed to a mid-May hiccup that correlated with the Orioles’ first-half tumble after a 22-10 start to the season.
Brach said he even carried his last outing of the season — he allowed five runs in one-third of an inning in the Orioles’ season finale when the team was well out of contention — with him well into the winter.
“I think this year, the goal is don’t put so much pressure on myself,” Brach said. “I don’t need to be Zach. I don’t need to be perfect. It’s just not going to happen. … Once the season ended, I looked back on it and I just put way too much pressure on myself to be perfect. That’s just not going to happen. That’s just not the way baseball works out, so it’s one of those things I’ve used as motivation this offseason.
“Last year, I was so worried about trying to get the save or trying to get the win than going out there and making one pitch at a time, that looking back at that experience can only help me moving forward.”
Orioles manager Buck Showalter has faith that Brach will excel in the role this season.
“I gained confidence about that role with him in that he's handled the adversity well in the season. That doesn't get away from him,” Showalter said. “Sometimes, it can't stop the snowball going down the hill. It's such a mental and emotional place, and you have to shorten the snowball trips back and forth.
“Brad is Brad. You know what you're getting every day and there's something to be said for that. … And he likes to win. You don't ever feel like it's, 'I need to get people out so I can get a four-year contract.' It's just that, ‘This is what people need me to do.’ … He's a good guy. He's good people.”
Husband and wife, all in
It’s been seven years since Brach, while playing with the Padres’ Triple-A team in Tucson, Ariz., walked into a Nashville, Tenn., bar and watched his future wife playing a set. He was quiet then, too, needing a friend to break the ice with Jenae before he asked her out.
Brach was fascinated by music, and that’s how they connected. Brach would carry Jenae’s equipment from gig to gig as she played the late shift before closing time around Nashville.
“I think we both had really high dreams, high aspirations,” Brach said. “I still remember the offseasons going home and being from 10:30 to 2:30 at night going to bars where there’s probably 10 people, she’s singing the whole night four hours as if the bar was packed. So, seeing her go from that to where she is now, it’s really cool. It’s kind of nice to have our lives and careers kind of parallel to each other.”
In those days, Brach — unsettled between the majors and the Triple-A level — would spend the offseason working out during the day and attending Jenae’s performances at night.
“He would sit there, and it was the same show every night,” she said. “It’s kind of what I do. I go and I sit and watch him for three or four hours a day. But seeing the person you love doing what they love, whether it’s a game in Triple-A where there’s six people there or it’s a dusty old bar, I think it’s really cool to see your spouse do what they love.”
Jenae released her first album, titled “Spinning” in 2015, but Orioles fans probably know her better for the song “Don’t Miss The Magic,” a catchy song she cowrote and performed several times before games in the second half of the 2016 season that became the team’s anthem as the club earned its third playoff berth in a five-year span.
In December, Brilee arrived, and parenthood changed both their lives. Jenae gained a whole new appreciation for her husband with how he embraced fatherhood.
“Any role the guy is given, he’s all in,” she said. “When we got married, he was all in. When Brilee was born, he was all in. He wasn’t scared of anything and if he was, he didn’t want to show me. He was putting her in the car seat. He was changing diapers when I was like, ‘Oh, my God, what do I do with this little tiny human?’ He seemed fearless to me, and I feel like that’s the way he is with a lot of things.”
And Brach immediately gained a new perspective on reality, especially on letting one bad game eat at him.
“It kind of changes your whole perspective — that blowing a save or something like that isn’t the most important thing in the world,” Brach said. “That night, yes, you should do everything as hard as you can. You don’t ever want to do that because it’s your job, but when you go home, I’m hoping this year I don’t dwell on it as much as I can, just because for me, I go home and think about it.
“This might help me just go home and forget about it and have a good time with my daughter and just really enjoy the little things in life rather than worrying about blowing a save in a baseball game the day before.”
Jenae still writes songs and plays with her band in Nashville, but she said music has taken a backseat to motherhood. For the past two seasons, she’s been singing on a worship team at the Hunt Valley Church in Cockeysville. She expects to get back to music eventually, as she’s written songs about both her husband and Brilee that she’d like to eventually record.
She did perform during the Orioles’ “Nashville’s Music Row Comes to the Ballpark” benefit earlier this month in Sarasota. She chose to sing a song titled “Where You Want Me,” which she wrote during the Brachs’ first season in Baltimore, when there was plenty of uncertainty for both of them. They’ve come a long way since then, and as Jenae performed that song, she saw Brach holding Brilee and had to fight off tears, thinking of their four-year journey in Baltimore.
Among the lyrics:
I’m sitting here trying to find a way to make my mark
Wondering why the sky seems like it has fallen dark
Why did it take so long for me to finally see
Everything I could ever want is standing next to me.
“Year after year, seeing him become an All-Star and step into different roles as the years have gone on, I think seeing him step into the role of a father was by far the coolest thing,” Jenae said. “I know as it goes right now, it might be our last year here, but I wanted to enjoy that moment with my daughter, my husband and all of our friends here. I saw them and I wanted to cry so bad, but I told myself, ‘Keep it together.’ ”
Brad Brach file
Position: Relief pitcher
Birthdate: April 12, 1986
June 5, 2008 Drafted in 42nd round by Padres
2008-13 Padres organization
Nov. 20, 2013 Designated for assignment by Padres
Nov. 25, 2013 Traded to Orioles
Nov. 30, 2013 Married Jenae
Oct. 3, 2014 Appeared in first career postseason game
July 12, 2016 Appeared in first career All-Star Game