Each member of the Biloxi Shuckers has to deal with matters away from the field, but right-handed pitcher Brandon Woodruff’s burden has been heavier than most this year.
His older brother, Blake, died at the age of 28 on July 16 after an ATV accident in his hometown of Wheeler, about 25 miles north of Tupelo.
The loss of a brother is the type of tragedy that can stop a man in his tracks, but Woodruff has continued to thrive in what has been a breakout season for the former Mississippi State hurler.
“I think about him every day, every time I go out to the field,” Woodruff said. “You don’t take this game for granted. You never know when you’ll get another day so I just go out and compete as hard as I can because you never know when it’s going to be over. He’s right there with me, with every pitch.”
Woodruff, 23, left the team to spend time with his family after his brother’s death and returned July 24 for the final contest of a five-game series against the Blue Wahoos in Pensacola.
The game began just as it had for many of Woodruff’s starts this season, retiring the first six batters he faced, striking out four. When he stepped into the batter’s box in the third inning, neither team had a hit.
What happened next lit up the dugout.
Woodruff, batting from the left side, ripped a 1-2 fastball over the right-field fence for his first home run as a professional.
“Lo and behold, it was the only run of the game,” Woodruff said. “It was pretty special.”
The Shuckers won 1-0 that night, with Woodruff giving up just one hit in six innings. He struck out nine and walked none.
Biloxi pitching coach Chris Hook remembered seeing a different approach that day from Woodruff’s teammates.
“They wanted to get it done for him,” Hook said. “I could see it in their eyes. It wasn’t just for us. It was for him. There is a tight bond in the pitching group and the whole club.”
Learning to cope
The team has served as a support group in the weeks following Woodruff’s family tragedy.
“The biggest thing for me was to get back here and just be with the guys,” he said. “When I’m here, it seems normal. You have the everyday routine. The organization has been awesome. They’ve helped me anyway that they could and just being here around the guys, just going out and competing being with everybody, it’s helped out a ton. It makes things seem a little back to normal.”
Like his brother, Blake Woodruff was a standout baseball player for Wheeler High School. He continued his baseball career at Northeast Mississippi Community College, but gave up his bat and glove when he chose to attend Mississippi State. He was working for Steel Dynamics Inc. in Columbus at the time of his death.
Blake had the joy of watching his younger brother play baseball for his alma mater, MSU, and as a professional in the Milwaukee Brewers’ organization.
“He was probably my No. 1 fan,” Brandon Woodruff said. “That’s who I learned the game from, just being around him and traveling and watching him go to high school practice. He played junior college ball and had a tremendous influence on my life as far as the baseball side.
“His dream was to play professional baseball and I’m kind of living out the dream for him.”
Woodruff has emerged as one of the better pitching prospects in the Brewers’ organization this season, after being somewhat of an afterthought a year ago when he went 4-7 with a 3.45 ERA in 21 appearances at Class A Brevard County in Florida.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Woodruff again began the 2015 season at Brevard County, but there was clear improvement in his second full season as a pro. He started the year 4-1 with a 1.83 ERA in eight starts for the Manatees. He struck out 49 batters in 44 1/3 innings to earn a May 17 promotion to Biloxi.
There were some bumpy outings early on at the Double-A level, but Woodruff has become increasingly dominant on the mound for the Shuckers.
Woodruff lasted eight innings — tying the season high for Biloxi — in a 5-0 win over the Mississippi Braves on Wednesday night at MGM Park. He struck out seven and walked two, allowing only two hits.
With a fastball in the mid-90s, Woodruff is 8-8 with a 3.34 ERA in 18 starts at Biloxi. He has 105 strikeouts with just 27 walks in 99 2/3 innings. In his last 10 starts, Woodruff is 6-3 with a 1.90 ERA.
Woodruff credits Hook for helping him make a quick turnaround at Double-A after a slow start.
“We just talked about a few things that he was able to implement fairly quickly,” Hook said. “The biggest thing was to plug into his athleticism. He was too slow, trying to be perfect and all that.
“When you’re athletic, you don’t need to think through the delivery. You trust yourself. That’s kind of where he’s taken off with a little bit of tempo. I think the tempo allows him to attack. He’s a Mississippian, laid back and nothing seems to bother him. The tempo gave him a little bit of an edge.”
Woodruff has proven to be one those pitchers who respond better to the pro game than the college level. His best season at MSU was in his freshman year when he went 1-2 with a 2.64 ERA in 12 appearances. He had a 4.34 ERA as sophomore and 6.75 as a junior.
Following his junior season, he was picked in the 11th round of the 2014 MLB Draft by the Brewers.
Woodruff showed some promise in his first two seasons as a pro, but a better approach at conditioning has helped the upbeat right-hander take off in his third year.
“This year, I kind of figured out my body,” he said. “I’m starting to know myself a lot more. Working with the coach at Brevard helped me a lot. I got here and Hook kept it going. I’ve been in a good rhythm the last month and a half.”
Woodruff has enjoyed the chance of pitching in his home state, which has also given him more opportunities to go home and visit family in the last month. His parents and wife, Jonie, have made it to MGM Park to watch him pitch multiple times since he was promoted to the Shuckers.
“It’s been awesome,” Woodruff said. “Being in pro ball, you never know where you’re going to be. When I heard the Brewers’ Double-A affiliate was coming to Biloxi, I thought that was awesome. All the fans here in general have been so nice and so welcoming.”
Plenty of Mississippi State fans have also made the way to MGM Park to watch the only Magnolia State native to play for the Shuckers.
“Sometimes when I warm up, you see them down in the bullpen taking pictures,” Woodruff said. “They’ll give you a little ‘Hail State’ and you yell back to acknowledge them.”