- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 12, 2007

RALEIGH, N.C. — It was a game day during basketball season, a situation Andrew Brackman was completely familiar with.

Only this time, N.C. State basketball players Trevor Ferguson and Bryan Nieman walked up to him with a half-joking proposition.

“They asked ‘So, you want to play tonight?’ ” Brackman recalled. “It was in the middle of the season and they’re like ‘Want to come play? We need another guy.’ ”

Though the offer was tempting, Brackman was committed to another sport. After juggling two while growing up in Cincinnati and then for two years at N.C. State, Brackman opted to devote his time to baseball last fall.

The decision accelerated Brackman’s development, and came with stretches he found disappointing. But the 6-foot-10 junior still enters his start tonight at Virginia with a 6-4 record, a 3.65 ERA, 69 strikeouts in 74 innings and a likely spot in the top 10 of next month’s baseball draft.

“I’ve learned a lot this year,” Brackman said. “I’m not just going straight from being a basketball player to a thrower on the mound. I’m still young to the game of baseball because I haven’t really played a full season. I have so much more to learn before I can be where I want to be.”

But to reach that point, Brackman acknowledges he made one of the toughest choices of his life. He arrived at it alone, with no cajoling from baseball coach Elliott Avent or new basketball coach Sidney Lowe, and gave up one of the sports he loved for an opportunity to refine his skills in the other.

Along with it came a spring under the microscope, since there was little doubt he was on a march to the draft.

“There’s just a lot of pressure from growing up wanting to be a professional baseball player and thinking you have a chance to be a high pick or even go at the top of the first round,” Avent said. “Then he had to consider dropping basketball to give baseball a better shot. He’s gone through it way better than most of us would.”

Doubling up

Brackman grew up in Cincinnati, with a routine of playing in an organized league, then scurrying home to play some more in the backyard. Baseball and basketball were regular presences, and he thrived at both.

He became even more prominent at Moeller High, a powerhouse that sent David Bell, Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Larkin and others to the major leagues. There was a great athletic heritage to live up to, and Brackman did so in multiple sports.

“One thing I would change about that is going to school there, you never saw those guys,” Brackman said. “They never came back around, never supported the school or anything like that. If I ever made it to their status, I’d go back and I’d help them out.”

Chances are, he’ll earn the opportunity, even it won’t come in basketball, where he averaged 7.5 points in two seasons as a perfect fit in Herb Sendek’s perimeter-based offense. While he played basketball in his freshman year, he shared his baseball locker with Josh Hamilton, the once-troubled young slugger who is thriving with the Cincinnati Reds.

Hamilton, who at the time was working out with the Wolfpack during one of his suspensions, left some cleats and bats in the locker. Brackman still has them, but his work and inevitable highs and lows this spring will help him create his own major league mementos in the future.

At times, he has been a victim of bad luck, such as a game against Maryland when he surrendered five runs in the third inning on a series of lightly hit balls, then set down 14 straight only to suffer a loss. Later, he re-started his basketball weightlifting routine, which took some speed off a fastball that usually reaches 97 or 98 miles an hour and sometimes touches 99.

The regular work allowed him to surpass his career innings total, which was held down both by basketball and last year’s hip injury. He has developed a straight change-up and worked on a breaking ball to complement the fastball and knuckle-curve he flustered hitters with before college.

It also has permitted him to grow more accustomed to his baseball teammates, who know they’re witnessing a future star every time Brackman takes the mound.

“The first time we saw him pitch, everybody was like ‘Wow,’ ” N.C. State outfielder Matt Payne said. “This year especially, you’ve been able to see him improve as a player and learn how to pitch because he’s doing it the whole year. Every time he starts, you feel like you have a really good shot to win. You feel like you’re watching something special.”

‘A phenomenon’

Brackman could run the basketball court and stealthily float outside for an open look. With so many power forwards who wanted to be shooting guards in the game, Brackman was actually one who could thrive with some of that mentality.

Meanwhile, his size remains a distinct advantage in baseball.

“Major league pitchers are getting bigger and that’s the way to go,” Brackman said. “I think it helps me with the downward angle on the ball and I release the ball closer to the plate. I don’t think it hurts me because I’m not slow. I’m a pretty athletic person. I’m a 6-3 person in a 6-10 body.”

Another asset is a fluid motion that should serve him well for years.

“You’re talking about a phenomenon,” Avent said. “He’s 7-foot, and with his athleticism and how he repeats his delivery and the way he goes about things, you’re talking about a guy who doesn’t come along often in this business. He’s going to be very successful at the next level.”

He still has some work at State. He will make two more regular-season starts and pitch in the ACC tournament for the Wolfpack (31-17, 12-12 ACC), who are still vying for an NCAA tournament berth.

Soon enough, the draft will arrive and his baseball future will become even brighter.

“It doesn’t matter who drafts me or where I go,” Brackman said. “I’m excited. I want to start a career and I want to do this for a living. The sooner you start, the sooner you get there.”

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