Just give him the ball
Fierce Easterling returns from surgery to lead St. Edward's
CARY, N.C. – Brannon Easterling wanted the ball, that’s all.
He’s that kind of uber-competitive kid, the kind who would run through a flaming brick wall for a victory. He threw eight innings for St. Edward's against Angelo State in the South Central Regional on May 16, and when he came into the dugout, he looked at head coach Rob Penders.
Penders and Easterling remember what happened next a little bit differently. To the young pitcher, it was a question.
“Earlier that week, me and Penders were talking,” Easterling said. “I told him, ‘Coach, I want you to know in the regional that I’m going to throw two games for you.’ He told me he knew I would like to do that, but that it was going to be tough.
“I said, ‘Coach, do I have the game on Sunday?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, you got it.’ I was up to right around 100 pitches, so I told Coach, ‘Let’s give this last inning to someone else so I can start preparing for that Sunday game.’”
Penders, though, described the moment as more of an announcement than query. Nothing wrong with that. The kid wanted to pitch.
“After that eighth inning, my assistant coach and I were debating whether we were going to go to our close or if we were going to leave Brannon in there,” Penders said. “Brannon came up to us and said, ‘I’m done. Bring A.J. [Rataic, the team’s closer] in. I’m going to pitch on Sunday.’”
What was Penders supposed to say to that?
Alright. That’s good enough for me.
Easterling went up against Texas A&M-Kingsville in the finale, and scattered eight hits over nine full innings en route to a 7-1 victory in the title game. The effort put the Hilltoppers into the DII World Series.
It’s the fifth national championship tournament for Penders, who went to won DI World Series as an assistant coach with Texas and garnered three titles in junior college competition at San Jancinto. The coach calls Easterling St. Edwards’ biggest factor in making it to Cary this season. It’s not faint praise, either. going into his Saturday DII tournament start against Grand Canyon, Easterling leads the nation in innings pitched (123.2) and complete games (13).
“He absolutely lives in the moment,” Penders began. “When he lives in that moment, he is the most competitive person I have ever coached. And I’ve coached a lot of great players. He is by far the best competitor I have, when he’s on the field and when he’s off the field.
“If he’s not pitching that day, he’s just as fired up to win as if he’s the starting pitcher. I’ve rarely had that kind of attitude – that win-at-all-costs attitude that doesn’t get turned off. He just want to win at everything he does.”
Here’s the rest of the story, and it’s just one of the aspects of Easterling’s story that makes what he’s accomplished on the hill all the more remarkable. As a sophomore at Temple College, a junior college, Easterling felt his arm go.
His ulnar collateral ligament -– the main stabilizer of the elbow -– was torn. The injury was a shock to his system, and in much more than a physical sense.
“My whole life, my dad has babied my arm,” Easterling began. “I didn’t play summer ball until I was a sophomore in high school, basically just because I was a pitcher only. I wasn’t much of any athlete. I’d taken care of my arm all my life. At first, I thought, ‘Oh, God. My baseball career is over.’”
After undergoing Tommy John surgery, Easterling’s road to recovery was a gradual one. This was not something to be rushed. One of the hardest parts of the process, he concluded, was not so much the physical pain.
No, this particular hurdle was mental.
“The hardest part was to just slow it all down,” Easterling remembered. “For the first three or four months, you’ve got one-pound weights doing wrist curls and shoulder exercises. It’s just a really slow and long process. When you get to throw the baseball again, it starts to speed up.”
Could the injury and his comeback from it be, at least in part, a reason behind his ultra-competitive nature? Does he feel like he’s got something to prove?
“The way I look at is that I’ve got a new arm,” Easterling concluded. “I’ve got a new arm and we’ve got a shot at a national championship, so let’s go ride this thing out and go win it.”