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Originally published: 2014-04-23 23:08:58
Last modified: 2014-04-23 23:14:50

Brill tells Mets to wait

by Steve Behr Sports Editor

Matt Brill had a major career choice to make when he left high school last spring.

The Coal Valley Ill., native could either play professional baseball, or play college baseball for Appalachian State.

Brill was drafted by the New York Mets in the 24th round of the 2013 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft as a pitcher. He had an ERA of 1.76 with 74 strikeouts and 26 walks in just 47.2 innings at Moline High School.

Instead of going pro, he chose Appalachian State.

Instead of primarily being a pitcher, he's an outfielder and a designated hitter. He signed with Appalachian State in October of 2013.

"It was a really tough decision, especially being a young kid," Brill said. "I really hadn't been exposed to anything like that before, making a life decision. With my parent's support, they helped me pick out the pros and cons of the process and if I signed, what would happen."

Brill said he came very close to choosing the Mets. Brill was even offered a signing bonus, but turned it down and instead signed with the Mountaineers.

"I was really close," Brill said. "The Mets gave me a great opportunity to go play ball for them. I just felt like this is a better place for me at the time."

His visit to the campus confirmed that.

"When I came for my official visit here, I was impressed not just with the coaching staff, but the facilities and the vibes I got from the campus," Brill said. "I knew this was the place I wanted to be for the next three or four years."

Since then, Brill has worked his way into the Mountaineers' starting lineup as the team's designated hitter. He's also turning into one of team's top hitters with a batting average of .350 after hitting as high as .412 earlier in April.

Some baseball experts say freshmen aren't supposed to hit .400. Mountaineers coach Billy Jones disagrees, to a point.

"Well, the good ones do," Jones said. "Somebody asked me a long time ago how does a freshman become an all-American and I said, When they get to play.'"

Brill was the Southern Conference player of the week on April 15 after hitting .533 with eight RBIs during the week of April 7-13. He extended his hitting streak to 15 games, when he hit .473, which included that week.

"He's just a special kid," Jones said. "He turned down money as a pitcher because he wanted to prove he could be a hitter and he's come a long way. Whatever we've asked him to do, he's done it. He's handled himself well, especially being a freshman. He doesn't get caught up in situations. Instead, he can slow the game down and let his ability take over."

Two-position players in professional baseball are extremely rare. The Mets drafted Brill as a pitcher, even though he hit .362 with 10 doubles, seven triples, six home runs and 42 RBIs during his 2012 American Legion Baseball season.

Brill wanted ready to give up batting just yet, so he stuck to his commitment with the Mountaineers.

"As a young guy, I've played a position my entire life," Brill said. "I wasn't ready to take the bat out of my hands. Coach Jones offered me a spot to play a position here and to pitch, so I was really impressed with coach Jones and his ability to develop players. I have a lot trust in coach Jones and the entire staff."

Brill's fast start in the spring can be credited to the work he did in the fall. He worked with the coaching staff on his swing during fall workouts, which allowed him to hit the ball better.

He also worked on his approach to hitting during the fall, which has helped during the regular season. Jones' son, Ryder, a second-round draft choice of the San Francisco Giants, helped Brill with his approach, especially when it comes to know what a pitch a pitcher in throw in certain situations.

"I'd step into the box in the fall and have no idea what I was doing," Brill said. "In certain situations, you should expect certain pitches. When you sit on a pitch, you have a better chance of hitting it, instead of going in there with a see ball, hit ball mindset."

Billy Jones still feels Brill could pitch in more games in the next three years. He has pitched twice this season with not so stellar results. He's given up three runs in 2/3 innings, which leaves him with an ERA of 27.00.

Even with those numbers, Jones said Brill is likely to pitch again in the future.

"We have him throw bullpens all the time, so we still have him there as a backup," Jones said. "He's been going to well from the offensive standpoint that we don't want to overload him with too much."

Brill is open to the idea of pitching in the future, especially if it helps the team. He noticed that prep lineups may have a handful of Division I-type batters, while teams Appalachian State plays have an entire lineup of Division I hitters.

It doesn't leave any breaks in the lineup for a pitcher straight out of high school, but Brill did not want to use that as an excuse for his high ERA.

"Unfortunately, my first couple of outings, I didn't show what I'm capable of," Brill said. "I'm ready for my next chance on the mound and hopefully that will work out."

The thing that is said about Division I batters can also be said for Division I pitchers. Brill's hitting streak ended at Wake Forest on April 16. Brill has been hitless since, having gone 0-for-4 against Elon.

All of Appalachian State's games since The Citadel have been away from Smith Stadium. The Mountaineers beat Virginia Tech 11-0 Tuesday and played Gardner-Webb Wednesday.

App State also hosts Davidson in a SoCon series from Friday until Sunday. The Mountaineers host Wake Forest on April 29.

It's a lot of baseball for a freshman, whom also had to adjust to college life nearly 800 miles from home.

"It's a little challenging to spend more time in the classroom than on the baseball field, but I've been doing all right trying to find the right balance," Brill said.