- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2005

The way Carolina League batters flailed at Bill Bray’s slider, it’s hard to believe his only scholarship offers out of high school were from William & Mary and Bucknell.

“I was just happy to be playing college baseball,” said Bray, a left-handed reliever who was promoted to Class AA Harrisburg from the Class A Potomac Nationals yesterday. “That was always my goal. I was just unknown.”

Bray, out of Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach, stayed close to home to pitch for William & Mary. By the time he left Williamsburg after his junior year, he was the Tribe’s highest draft pick ever — 13th overall last June.

The last first-round pick of the Montreal Expos before their move to the District, Bray signed late last summer for a $1.75million bonus. He pitched just seven innings in the minors in 2004 but got more work in the Arizona Fall League, usually reserved for higher-level prospects.

Bray struggled for the Peoria Javelinas, posting a 7.31 ERA and giving up 21 hits in 16 innings. But he learned from Gary Lance, the pitching coach for Class AAA Portland (Ore.) in the San Diego Padres system, how to use his slider and changeup even when behind in the count.

“I also learned from Brad Baker [the Pacific Coast League saves leader for Portland this season],” Bray said. “He’s a great closer. I just kind of watched what he did — how he handled himself on the mound, in the clubhouse, in the bullpen.”

Bray’s AFL stint ended early because of a bulging disc in his back, and when the injury was aggravated with five days left in spring training, his 2005 season was delayed.

After resting the back, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Bray joined Potomac on May31. In 122/3 innings, the 22-year-old went 1-0 with three saves and a 2.13 ERA. He struck out 18 and walked three. Left-handed hitters were 2-for-20 with nine strikeouts and no extra-base hits. Bray throws his fastball in the low-90s and slider in the mid-80s.

“He just throws strikes and competes in the strike zone,” Potomac manager Bob Henley said. “I think the left-handed batters have a hard time picking the ball up. His slider is tight enough that they can’t pick up the rotation. Because he’s throwing so many strikes, when it does start in the zone and go out of the zone they can’t pick it up.”

At Ocean Lakes, Bray was the No.2 starter after left-hander Mike Ballard, a 47th-round pick of the Minnesota Twins earlier this month out of Virginia.

Even at William & Mary, a teammate drew attention from scouts first. Right-hander Chris Ray, who made his major league debut with the Baltimore Orioles last week, was the Tribe’s closer during Bray’s freshman year. As a sophomore, Bray took over the closer’s role when Ray, then a junior, moved into the rotation. The Orioles drafted Ray in the third round (74th overall) in 2003, making him the highest pick from William & Mary, albeit for only a year.

Various reports claimed Bray might be used as a starter this season, even if the long-term plan was still for him to pitch in the late innings.

“Those were just rumors that came out of nowhere; I’m a reliever and that’s where I’ll be,” Bray said. “I don’t think [the injury] has affected anything. I feel good out there.”

Farm notes — The Nationals didn’t have a second- or third-round selection in this year’s draft because of the free agent signings of third baseman Vinny Castilla and shortstop Cristian Guzman, but they plan on getting a few top picks elsewhere.

“We want to take that money and put it to work in Latin America,” said Ismael Cruz, director of Latin American scouting and player development. “This is the first year we’ve been able to work eight or nine months out of the year instead of the four or five previously.”

Scouting director Dana Brown oversees the international operation. According to Cruz, the organization spent about $115,000 for Venezuelan and Dominican players last year. In this summer’s international signing period, it will be “eight times that,” he said. …

The Nationals’ short-season Class A affiliate in the New York-Penn League, the Vermont Expos, begins play tonight at Lowell, Mass. Fans have until July24 to make suggestions for a more Vermont-appropriate nickname for the team.

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