After 9 years in minors, Braves’ Brigham shines in MLB debut

Jake Brigham toiled nine years in the minors without so much as a sniff of the big leagues, but the wait was worth it when he finally made his major league debut Tuesday.

The 27-year-old right-hander pitched three scoreless innings against the Washington Nationals, allowing just one hit and one walk with four strikeouts. He was still so excited an hour later, Brigham said his hands were shaking, the reason he had them in his pockets while being interviewed by reporters.

“It was amazing,” Brigham said, after his three innings of work saved the bullpen from being overtaxed in a 6-1 loss, the first of 13 games in as many days for the Braves. “It was more than I ever could have imagined. I hate that we lost, because I’m walking around with a smile. But it was amazing. Just a thrill.”

The Braves and manager Fredi Gonzalez understood the smile. Gonzalez was thrilled for Brigham, who was called up Sunday from Triple-A Gwinnett. The Florida native debuted in the first game of a homestand, an unforgettable night made more special for him because it was attended by his parents, wife, daughter and other family members.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “My parents, from the time I was little, my brothers and sisters, and my wife Taylor and daughter Stella are here, and my in-laws and good friends…. The encouragement over the years that they’ve given me, to never give up and just pursue my dream, is why I’m here.”

Brigham became the fourth Atlanta-era Braves pitcher to pitch at least three scoreless relief innings in his major league debut.

A sixth-round draft pick by the Texas Rangers in 2006, Brigham was in their minor league system through 2013, never pitching above Double-A until his final year. He spent most of last season with the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate, then signed a minor league contract this winter with the Braves, after being recommended by former Rangers pitching coach, Mark Connor, a close friend of Gonzalez’s.

Brigham was a bit disheartened to be assigned to Double-A Mississippi to begin the season, but he didn’t mope or complain. He was 6-3 with a 3.05 ERA in 12 starts at Mississippi, with 49 strikeouts and 14 walks in 65 innings. Still, he was a 27-year-old in Double-A.

But then came a promotion to Triple-A, where he made just one appearance before the call came, the one he wasn’t sure would ever come. The Braves had summoned him to the big leagues.

Just two weeks ago he was in Double-A. Now he’s got three scoreless innings of big-league ball on his resume.

“You never know,” he said, smiling. “You never know who’s watching. Doesn’t matter what level you’re at. Going to Mississippi out of spring training, I determined that I was going to get out of there quick. Had a rough first couple of starts, made some changes, but just started getting aggressive with guys. And you just never know. I just went about my work every day and tried to get better every day, and two weeks later I’m sitting here. Pretty surreal.”

Just one other thing, a reporter wanted to know. If his hands were still shaking an hour after he left the game, how did Brigham keep it together for three strong innings in his debut against the first-place Nationals?

Brigham smiled again before answering.

“I had a lot of people text me and call me and just said, ‘Try and focus on breathing. Just breathe. If you can breathe, you can think,’” he said. “And I don’t know how well I did that, but I just tried to just remind myself, take deep breaths, just breathe, relax. After getting the first guy out it was like, Ok, well, I can get a guy out, so let’s keep going.”