A summer league game under the lights. Two teams made up of players from rival high schools. More than a few hard feelings carried over from the varsity season.
On the mound for Fall River, Mass., was 16-year-old Brandon Gomes. At bat was the best hitter from New Bedford.
Rays minor-league catcher Craig Albernaz, who played shortstop that night for Fall River, provided this account of the at-bat:
“(Gomes) was on the mound dealing, and their stud hitter gets up. There was a runner on second, and Brandon is telling him, hey fastball is coming and, swoosh, by him, (fastball is coming,) swoosh, by him. Three right by him.”
Gomes, a right-hander competing for the last spot in the Rays’ bullpen, has the fastball, slider and splitter necessary to succeed at the big-league level. And, just to be sure, he has the attitude as well.
“He literally goes right after hitters,” Albernaz said. “He gives them credit, but he knows he still has to make his pitch, so he’s not scared. He doesn’t back down. Doesn’t care who’s hitting or what’s the situation. He goes right at him.”
Rays manager Joe Maddon likes that part of Gomes, the part that will not give in. It’s a trait that serves pitchers well, especially relief pitchers.
“All good competitors and athletes have to have that,” Gomes said. “Off the field I try to be a pretty good guy and not have that come out. Out on the mound you have to have that chip on your shoulder, just that little extra edge. That’s been my mentality since I was 9 years old and just learning to pitch. It’s something I’ve carried all the way to here.”
Gomes is the exact opposite in the clubhouse, where he’s often seen sitting by his locker with his head in a novel. He graduated near the top of his class from Tulane University and took the LSAT after graduation just in case his baseball career didn’t work out.
So far, it’s working out.
Maddon said Gomes has been the most impressive relief pitcher in camp this spring.
“It’s good to see that he’s healthy again,” Maddon said.
Back surgery following the 2011 season robbed Gomes of his velocity last spring and forced him to begin the year at Triple-A Durham. From there it was an up-and-down season. Literally.
Gomes had five stints with the Rays. While he was nearly unhittable with Durham — an International League-leading 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings — he didn’t really put it together at the big-league level until his September call-up.
“Getting to pitch six innings in September, I felt really good by then,” Gomes said. “I threw well by that time. It was just a good point to carry over to this year.”
Where Gomes begins this season will depend on what the Rays do with Jeff Niemann. If Niemann heads to the bullpen, Gomes heads back to Durham, a prospect Gomes said he will accept because he’s confident he will return at some point during the year.
“I would think so,” he said. “So all I can worry about is being effective out on the mound no matter where I am, and keeping that intensity and pitch effectiveness.”
Ah, the intensity.
“He’s just a tough kid. Everyone back home has the edge to him. He brings it out when he’s pitching,” Albernaz said. “He’s one of those guys who is extremely nice, very loyal. Probably don’t want to cross him too much. You’re definitely glad he’s on your side, absolutely.”