STARKVILLE — Ben Bracewell was considered one of the best high school power arms in state of Alabama three years ago.
That’s why Mississippi State baseball coach John Cohen felt Bracewell was the key to a recruiting class that included pitching prospects Chris Stratton, Kendall Graveman, and Chad Girodo.
It also explains why Cohen and his coaches have waited patiently for Bracewell to mature and to come back from a frustrating injury.
The time for waiting is over.
After an arduous rehabilitation process, Bracewell is ready to compete for one of the coveted spots in MSU’s weekend rotation and everyone is anxious to see him realize his potential in his third year with the program.
“Every time Ben Bracewell goes out there it’s like a five-star signee going out there because I think he’s going to be outstanding,” Cohen said.
Bracewell came to MSU after posting a 15-0 record with a 0.47 ERA. Opponents hit .108 against him in his final high school season. The right-hander struck out 156 in 90 innings and helped lead the Briarwood Christian Lions to a runner-up finish in the Class 5A state playoffs. Bracewell won six of Briarwood Christian’s nine playoff games with a 0.19 ERA mark.
However, he arrived in Starkville with a right arm team doctors and pitching coach Butch Thompson feared would have medical issues before he graduated. That fear turned into a reality in March 2009.
Bracewell knew something was wrong when he began to feel excessive
soreness in the days after throwing in games or heavy bullpen sessions. None of the pain made sense to the 6-foot, 194-pounder who had worked for years to perfect a motion that reduced the stress on his arm but focused on power from his lower body. His motion is a major reason Bracewell was considered a late bloomer, especially after he started his high school career throwing 80 mph fastballs.
“I know it was a rumor and (it was) even said here that my high school coaches overworked me, but that’s just not the case,” Bracewell said. “Coach (Lee Hall at Briarwood Christian) would always tell me if I felt anything to let him know so he could sit me down. He was always concerned about me physically.”
Soon Bracewell realized something was wrong and that he had to tell MSU coaches he wouldn’t be able to contribute as much as he wanted as a freshman reliever.
“I knew I had to get something done,” Bracewell said. “When it happened, I really don’t know, but it’s one of those things I think I made worse. I felt something in my first fall but just rehabbed it over Christmas and then felt great. I should’ve listened to my body.”
After stepping into MSU’s closer role as a freshman in 2010, Bracewell suffered a rare injury to the front part of the labrum on his right arm near the biceps tendon. What made the injury unique, and was excellent news for the future, was Bracewell’s right shoulder remained strong and didn’t suffer any structural damage due to overcompensation in his throwing motion.
“Once I learned this was a freak injury that doesn’t occur with overuse or anything that anybody did wrong that gave me all the confidence I could to get back to throwing the baseball the way I know how,” Bracewell said.
Bracewell, the Birmingham News Player of the Year and Metro Player of the Year in 2009, was told by MSU team doctors and world renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews that pitching in 2010 on limited capacity throughout the final month wasn’t going to damage the injury or create a longer rehabilitation process after the surgery is performed.
“I still think we’ve been so cautious with him because the calendar says it’s September and October,” Thompson said. “We think his inability to recuperate after throwing before was something surgery could correct. We also think a plan for him to throw once a week as a starter can help that process.”
Andrews performed the surgery in the summer before the 2011 season, but he needed nearly the whole year to properly rehabilitate the arm.
Bracewell stayed around the team throughout his rehabilitation and began throwing off flat surfaces and then off a mound before MSU began its postseason run last season.
“I feel like I’m back to where I was before the surgery, and (I can) probably say I’m better now because even while just watching other guys I’ve learned how to pitch,” Bracewell said.
During the fall practice period, Bracewell is slated to be a starting pitcher. Bracewell hasn’t lost a game he has started on the mound since his junior year of high school. He appears to be up for the challenge and is throwing his fastball in the 90- to 94-mph range in scrimmages.
“Having Ben Bracewell back is like recruiting to the best pitcher in the country,” Thompson said. “With his injury you want to see (velocity) and it was there from day one. That allowed us instantly to go, ‘OK, where do we go from here?'”
Bracewell’s project this fall is experimenting with grips for a changeup that are supposed to give him a third pitch to use to keep Southeastern Conference hitters off balance. With his history of injuries, that could be a tricky process. Senior left-hander Nick Routt hurt his throwing elbow trying to throw a circle-change with side movement.
“It’s fun because there’s two or three different sides of throwing a
changeup that I’m playing with, and I’ll keep tinkering with it,” Bracewell said. “I came here not knowing the mental side of how to throw a pitch and now I’m working on that with Butch every day.”
Bracewell is expected to compete with Routt, Stratton, and sophomore Evan Mitchell for a spot in MSU’s weekend rotation.
“Last year we needed three guys that could get us six, seven innings into a ballgame,” Cohen said. “I think if we have three guys on the weekends who can do that then you can go to a Taylor Stark and a Caleb Reed at the end of a game. That’s where we can be special. But you can’t do any of that if you have to go get guys in the middle of the third inning.”
Accomplishing that goal is something the now 21-year-old Bracewell has been waiting a long time to do.
“After being out for so long, I’d be so happy with any role because getting the last outs of a ballgame was a blast,” Bracewell said. “If they want me to be a starter this season, I know how to do that, too. I’m not a freshman, so I feel like I know what I’m supposed to be doing out on that mound.”