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BRADENTON, Fla.—On a sun-splashed afternoon, State JC of Florida sophomore lefthander Brendon Little talked about last season's dark clouds.
"It was a bumpy, bumpy road," Little said.
It almost seemed like a different life. Little, the top-rated player in North Carolina's 16th-ranked recruiting class, couldn't throw strikes. His confidence wavered. He worked four total innings out of the bullpen and didn't travel on most road trips.
"I had always been a name to watch, then I became 'Brendon who?' " Little said. "I didn't know what the heck was happening."
After a dynamic summer in the Cape Cod League—39 strikeouts in 27 innings for Bourne and a spot on the league's all-star team—Little already was mentioned as a potential first-round pick before throwing his first meaningful junior-college pitch for the Manatees.
What the heck happened?
"All I know is when you have a lefthander who can throw a 96 mile-an-hour fastball with an 84 mile-an-hour breaking ball—stuff you may not see even in the big leagues—if he can control all the pitches he's got, you're definitely looking at a first-round pick," said Manatees pitching coach Don Robinson, who had 15 seasons of major league experience with the Pirates, Giants, Angels and Phillies.
"I just see an electric pitcher with a good head on his shoulders and a great attitude," Manatees head coach Tim Hill said. "I'm not quite sure what happened last season."
Little has an idea.
Heading into his senior season at Conestoga High in Malvern, Pa., Little incorporated some mechanical adjustments.
"I shifted to the other side of the rubber, tried to stride out further, a decent amount of changes, trying to increase my velocity," Little said. "It was too much, too soon. It just led to command inconsistencies for me.
"It was the beginning of a theme. It continued into the fall at North Carolina. I got off to a really bad start and didn't show much in the fall. Come springtime, there wasn't much trust in me."
He went from high-profile to invisible.
Down in the bullpen, Little had plenty of time to think. He researched his mechanical work, searching for answers. Somewhere along the line, he knew he'd be leaving North Carolina.
"Two months into the season, I had thrown one inning," Little said. "I wasn't going back. I needed to be somewhere where I could get the innings, even if I did struggle a bit."
He heard about SJCF through a couple of high school friends who went through the program. Before that, though, he had made a commitment to the Cape Cod League. He wondered if it would still apply after he left a Division I school. Would he still be wanted?
Little told the Bourne coaches he wanted to become a starter again. They saw his UNC freshman work—four innings—and said the bullpen would be a better fit.
He was eager for a new beginning and wanted to prove he belonged.
His first outing on the Cape was a nightmare. Infield single, walk, another walk. He was lifted.
"I was anxious and nervous to go out there," Little said. "It was like the same-old, same-old. But the coaches up there showed so much confidence in me. They kept putting me out there every week. And I kept getting better.
"It was almost like I had to get the first outing behind me, then I was fine. I mean, it didn't work out at North Carolina, but I had been pitching and starting my whole life. I knew I could do it. Once I settled in, I felt like my old self."
Little said he doesn't expect any problems in returning to starting assignments this spring. His mission is improving his three pitches—a fastball that sits in the low to mid 90s, a power curveball, and a developing changeup. His priority is throwing strikes.
"Throwing ball after ball after ball after ball . . . I haven't seen that," Robinson said. "He'll strike out a guy, walk the next guy. I'm not worried.
"I've seen a lot of great breaking balls. I saw (Bert) Blyleven. This kid has one like that, where it just falls off the table. His skills are crazy. He's smart. He's humble. I learned in the big leagues that if you can handle the failure part of the game, the success is easy. I think he's already learning that lesson."
Little, 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, visualized big success at North Carolina. It didn't happen. Not even close.
But there were benefits.
"I can keep things in perspective," Little said. "It really shows how quick it can come and how quick it can go. At North Carolina, I didn't have command of anything. Now I'm going in a good direction, but there's so much more progress I can make. It's an exciting time."
"I know the North Carolina coaches liked Brendon and wanted him to stay," Hill said. "He didn't get many opportunities there. Bottom line, he needed to pitch more innings. Between the Cape and here, he's going to get where he needs to be."
Seventy scouts attended the Manatees' pro day.
Little was scheduled for an Opening Day, 75-pitch outing Jan. 27 against Chipola (Fla.) JC, a matchup of two powerhouse programs that is sure to draw significant interest from scouts. Little is ready for the extra attention.
"I'm not worried about who (scouts) is here to see me or where I might go (in the draft)," Little said. "I'm focusing on improving. I'm focusing on throwing strikes, pitching like I know I can."
— Joey Johnston is a freelance writer based in Tampa