By Paul Gotham
When the Rome Braves opened the 2012 season with six wins in their first twenty-four attempts, making the playoffs seemed far-fetched. Becoming the worst team in minor league looked more realistic. But that is the depth to which Rome fell. The Braves bottomed out at 18-52, and found themselves all alone in the basement of minor league baseball.
Yes, the worst record in all of Major League Baseball’s farm systems. It took a little longer than a day to rebuild this Rome.
By the end of August, fortunes changed. Rome won a club record 13 straight en route to a 29-14 mark after the All-Star break. A doubleheader sweep on August 31st clinched a spot in the Class A South-Atlantic League post-season.
At the heart of the turnaround crouched Cory Brownsten, the Monroe Community College and New York Collegiate Baseball League alum.
After seeing limited playing time during the first half of the season, Brownsten became Rome’s regular catcher following the All-Star break. The results speak for themselves, and others took notice. Baseball America rated Brownsten as the South Atlantic League’s Best Defensive Catcher, and the Rome Braves named the Lockport, New York native their Defensive Player of the Year.
Brownsten’s start was a reflection of his struggles in 2011. He began last year in extended spring training rehabbing a knee injury he suffered during the fall of 2010. Upon his return, a dislocated thumb ended his season after just 13 games.
“It was tough,” Brownsten said when discussing the adjustments he needed to make after going almost twelve months without seeing live pitching.”It’s not the easiest thing seeing a ninety mile an hour pitch after not seeing it in a long time and not being able to hit it everyday.”
This summer he made 77 starts for Rome, many of those came during the second half of the season when the 24-year old became the team’s everyday catcher. He strung together hits in seven-game hitting streak at one point.
“Once I was playing three or four days in a row, things got better,” Brownsten continued. “First half of the season I wasn’t playing all the time, but in the second half that changed. More reps makes it a lot easier seeing the ball and seeing the pitches. It’s definitely a big difference between seeing it everyday instead of every other day.”
Brownsten, as always, earned his way wearing the chest protector and face mask. He turned in a fielding percentage of .981 while throwing out 40 percent of would-be base stealers compiling a range factor per game (putouts plus assists) of 8.29 – the highest in his three years of minor league ball. With Brownsten providing consistency behind the plate, Rome made their run to the playoffs.
“We lost 20 one-run games,” Brownsten said of his team’s early-season struggles. “I wasn’t playing everyday. I got the chance and never looked back. We became more consistent as a team in the locker room and on the field. Thing is we didn’t pick up too many guys, just a couple of pitchers in the draft. We didn’t change our team too much. We just came together and had nothing to lose.”
Brownsten did get a brush with the Major Leagues in April. He was called upon to catch a pair of re-hab starts for 14-year veteran Tim Hudson.
“He was great,” Brownsten said of Hudson. “Not many minor league catchers can say they had the opportunity to catch a guy with so much big-league experience. It really helped me see how a pitcher like him hits his spots.”
The battery was all-NYCBL. Hudson, who has won 197 games with the Oakland Athletics and Atlanta Braves, pitched for the Hornell Dodgers in 1996. The A’s chose Hudson out of Auburn University in the sixth round of the 1997 amateur draft. The right-hander is currently 16-6 for the playoff-bound Braves.
Atlanta chose Brownsten in the 15th round of the 2010 draft. As a rookie, he hit .287 with two home runs and 14 RBI in 34 Gulf Coast League games and earned a late season call-up playing one game with the Danville Braves of the Appalachian League.
In junior college, Brownsten earned D2 Defensive-Player-of-the-Year honors to go with a Gold Glove. He garnered first-team All-American, All-District and All-Region hitting .390 with seven home runs, 50 RBI and a slugging percentage of .615. MCC finished the 2008 season third in the nation.
He is one of two Monroe catchers to receive a Gold Glove. A.J. Kehlenbeck nabbed the honor in 2011.
Brownsten was named NYCBL second team with the Webster Yankees in 2008. In 27 games, he hit .272, seven extra-base hits and 19 RBI.
Brownsten went on to the University of Pittsburgh where he earned All-Big East hitting .395 with 17 extra-base hits, including three home runs and 48 RBI. The right-handed hitter walked 16 times, stole three bases in six attempts and finished with a slugging percentage of .530.