U.S. Naval Academy seventh-year pitching coach Bobby Applegate says with the number of doubleheaders there are in college baseball, teams need to be able to rely on more than just one person to close out games.
Under ideal conditions, though, it’s pretty obvious who the Midshipmen want toeing the rubber with a game on the line.
Since the beginning of the 2019 season, Navy senior and Millbrook graduate Trey Braithwaite has been one of the top closers in all of college baseball. He’s recorded 14 of Navy’s 21 saves during a stretch in which the NCAA Division I Midshipmen have posted a record of 53-18.
As a sophomore in 2019, Braithwaite was one of 45 players named to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Stopper of the Year Midseason Watch List and tied Navy’s single-season school record for saves with 10, earning First Team All-Patriot League honors. In 29 innings over 23 appearances, Braithwaite struck out 33 batters, walked 10 and posted a 3.10 ERA and a .245 batting average against.
As a junior in 2020, he was even better in a season shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic, with a 0.71 ERA, a .159 batting average against, 13 strikeouts, five walks and four saves (tied for 17th nationally) while pitching 12.2 innings over eight games.
Braithwaite now hopes he can help Navy — winners of five straight Patriot League regular-season titles from 2015-19 — advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016 while also showing he has what it takes to pitch professionally.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound right-hander was throwing 93 to 95 miles per hour during the Midshipmen’s fall program in Annapolis, Md., this after he was slated to pitch in the nation’s top collegiate wooden bat summer league (the Cape Cod Baseball League) before it was canceled by COVID-19.
“Trey is high energy, a really hard worker, really developing his craft, really taking on his role as a back-end reliever for us,” Applegate said in a phone interview. “He’s done a great job of saving some games for us. He’s a high-end college reliever, and there’s the possibility of him maybe being a [professional] talent.
“Our conference [the Patriot League] is won and lost in the bullpen. We have some great starters in our league, but we’re playing three to four games on the weekend. He’s showed us he can go multiple innings, multiple days in a row. When the game is on the line, he’s very, very valuable.”
Braithwaite had to grow in several ways to develop into the person and player that he is now.
As a freshman, Braithwaite said in a phone interview “it was a big learning experience” trying to balance academics, military training, and baseball. Academically, Braithwaite is an English major who minors in Spanish, and all Navy students are required to take courses in calculus and chemistry in their first year. Braithwaite has also had to adjust to taking engineering courses.
He also had to soak up as much as he could from the veterans on the team. Braithwaite only pitched 1.1 innings in two appearances in 2018 (he struck out two batters and did not allow a hit, walk or run).
“He was a very eager player as a freshman,” Applegate said. “But he did a really good job of sitting back and letting the older guys go about their business, and he learned a lot of really good techniques and learned how to prepare to pitch at this level.”
By the time Braithwaite’s sophomore year rolled around, he was more comfortable with his military training and academics. As a result, he was able to spend more time in the weight room, more time long tossing, and more time working on his mechanics with Applegate. Braithwaite — who also throws a slider and changeup — saw his fastball velocity increase from 87-88 mph to 89-91 mph.
On Feb. 27, 2019, Navy was 1-5 and had a 5-3 lead against Coppin State. With two outs and a runner on first, the Midshipmen brought in Braithwaite for his third appearance of the year when Coppin State sent pinch-hitter Ryan McWilliams to the plate. McWilliams doubled to put runners on second and third, but Braithwaite then struck out Conner Walker on three pitches for his first career save.
That appearance didn’t make Braithwaite necessarily the top choice to finish games for Navy, as the Midshipmen continued to experiment with Braithwaite and the rest of the bullpen. But after pitching 6.2 shutout innings over his next four appearances (1-0 record, five hits, two walks, nine strikeouts), Braithwaite earned a two-inning save against Bucknell in an 11-10 win on March 17.
That would be the first of 10 straight appearances for Braithwaite in which he was the last pitcher on the mound for Navy.
On March 31, Braithwaite entered the game in the eighth inning against Lafayette with no one out and the bases loaded and the Midshipmen up 11-8. He got out of the jam with just one run allowed, and in the ninth he finished off a two-inning save and a 11-9 win.
That was the first of seven straight Braithwaite appearances that ended with a save, a stretch in which he allowed only three hits and did not allow a run.
“We were trying to find out what was the best role for him,” Applegate said. “We’ve got to make sure we put our young players in a position to be successful so they can continue to grow. Not only did he do a good job with that, he excelled at it. He really developed as a pitcher.”
Braithwaite said his sophomore season helped his career greatly.
“Finding that groove, that’s obviously a big confidence boost,” Braithwaite said. “Just knowing you have the ability to do that time in and time out is great.”
Braithwaite experienced a historic moment during his sophomore campaign when he earned the save in Navy’s 1,000th win as a program against Lafayette in the Patriot League semifinals on May 11, 2019, a 3-0 victory that started a 2-0 sweep. It was also the 10th save of the year for Braithwaite, who struck out two and did not allow a hit in tying the single-season school record set in 2006.
But Braithwaite also experienced a deflating moment. With the Patriot League championship series tied at one game apiece, Army broke a 3-3 tie in the top of the ninth inning with a bloop RBI single in Braithwaite’s second inning of work. The Black Knights then closed out the 4-3 triumph in the bottom of the frame as Braithwaite suffered just his second loss of the year.
“Every game is a big game, but [Navy-Army] just has a different atmosphere and emotion to it,” Braithwaite said. “At the end of the day, we’re all going to serve together and be brothers on the battlefield, but that game means a lot to both schools. I wish we could have gotten that win against Army at the end.”
The loss ended Navy’s season earlier than it wanted, but the Midshipmen still set a single-season school record for victories in going 39-17.
“It was a huge season,” Braithwaite said. “I think that’s a lot of credit to our hard work and our lifestyle. We’re always moving on to the next thing and ready to take on whatever’s ahead of us.”
Braithwaite said Navy’s 2019 success carried over to 2020. After losing their first game, the Midshipmen won 14 straight. With his fastball hitting 91 to 93 mph and his slider even harder to hit, Braithwaite saved four of those contests.
“You could see a guy who was really in charge at the back end of the game,” Applegate said.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and baseball had to be put on the backburner. The rest of Navy’s and Braithwaite’s promising 2020 season was canceled, as well as Braithwaite’s opportunity to pitch with the Wareham Gatemen of the prestigious Cape Cod League.
Just like in the summer of 2019 when he pitched with the Winchester Royals of the Valley Baseball League, Braithwaite was going to have to leave Wareham early because of a Navy commitment. Near the end of July, Braithwaite left Annapolis for three and a half weeks to go to Quantico for Marine training. Braithwaite said the Marine program and surface warfare are the fields he’s most interested in for the future.
Upon graduation, at least five years of service time is required for U.S. Naval Academy graduates. But it is possible for Navy students to try and defer their service time after a professional sports career after President Trump pushed for that last year, and Braithwaite would love to have that chance.
According to Navy assistant sports information director David Gerhart, “it is a policy that has changed and continues to change with leadership changes and is a case-by-case basis usually.” Gerhart added that waivers for pro sports are usually run through a chain of command in the Navy.
Working against Braithwaite are changes made to the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and to college eligibility this year due to COVID-19.
The 2020 MLB Draft was reduced from 40 rounds to five and reports say MLB teams have been told the 2021 draft could possibly be 20 to 30 rounds. The NCAA granted spring sports athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the truncated season.
“I think it’s a possibility right now [of playing professionally],” Braithwaite said. “We’ve had some [pro personnel] come out and watch us. But there’s a lot of unknowns. You don’t know how the season is going to play out. You don’t know how many rounds are going to be in the draft, and there are a lot of kids staying [in college baseball] this year that usually would have been drafted [in a 40-round draft]. But I think I have a chance.”
Until then, Braithwaite will continue to work. He spoke last month just after Navy completed a 12-week outdoor program, during which Braithwaite’s velocity continued to climb.
Braithwaite will be part of what figures to be another outstanding Navy team, though there are lot of unknowns about the 2021 season. Navy, which opened play Feb. 14 last year, hasn’t released a schedule yet,
The Midshipmen lost four players from last year’s team but bring back their entire pitching staff, which posted a 3.07 ERA in a 14-1 season (the next best Patriot League ERA was Army’s 5.15 mark). Navy struck out 131 batters and walked only 25 in 135 innings, and batters hit .212 against the Midshipmen.
“We’re definitely capable of winning the conference and making regionals,” said Braithwaite, who needs four saves to become Navy’s all-time saves leader. “Individual accolades are cool, but those are the things I want the most.”
No matter what Braithwaite’s baseball future holds, he’s glad he made the choice to go to Navy.
“It’s been a pretty crazy ride,” he said. “A lot of ups and downs. One day on a certain week, you’ll be feeling pretty special, pretty important just because of some of the things you’re accomplishing. Some weeks, some days, you’ll feel the absolute worst you’ve ever felt because of the rigors. It kind of gets you down at times.
“Ultimately, being at Navy has taught me so many lessons and made me the man I am. I’ve learned so much, and I think I’ve got a lot more to learn and a lot more to offer. But from what I’ve done so far, it’s been pretty special.”
See Saturday’s edition for a roundup of all the area’s college baseball players.