Rise Of The Phoenix
In the stands behind the plate at Elon’s Latham Park, scouts routinely gather for games.
That frequently means there’s someone on the mound who needs to be evaluated. Then they come back to the next day, too. That’s because Elon has two prime pitching prospects and they’re both entering their junior seasons. Righthanders Kyle Brnovich and George Kirby attract the attention. Both were voted Preseason All-Americans by major league scouting directors—Kirby on the second team and Brnovich on the third—and project to be picked in the top four rounds of the draft in June.
The righthanders come from different parts of the country and yet they’ve put Elon back on the map in terms of college baseball’s must-see teams.
“It’s cool to see people up there and see interest from all these (professional) teams,” Brnovich said. “It’s really exciting and makes you feel pretty good about yourself. It’s still about going out there and playing. You can’t control what those guys think. You can only control what you can do.”
Elon, which hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2013, ranks among the favorites in the Colonial Athletic Association this season based on the top end of its returning rotation. Veteran coach Mike Kennedy has produced over the course of his tenure at Elon an array of pitching talent, highlighted by righthander John Brebbia. Brebbia was a 30th-round pick in 2011 and is one of just four players to be drafted from Elon to reach the major leagues. Righthander Steven Hensley is the highest drafted player in program history, going in the fourth round in 2008. (Righthander Gary Brown was a first-round pick in the now-defunct January draft in 1971.)
So to have two prospects of the caliber of Brnovich and Kirby on one pitching staff is unique for the Phoenix.
“I think they understand that each time they pick up the baseball, each time they go to the weight room, each time they throw a flat ground, it’s an opportunity to get better,” Kennedy said. “They want to be really good. I’ve coached guys that have been good but didn’t have work ethic.”
Now it’s a matter of sorting some things out for Kennedy and pitching coach Sean McGrath, which is a good issue to have.
“They’re elite and they both want to pitch on Friday simply because ‘Friday night’—you get that (distinction) of being the Friday night guy,” Kennedy said. “Both of them are Friday night guys however you shake it. We’re just fortunate to have two of them.”
As they’ve worked together in the offseason, the duo strives for a common goal at the top of the rotation. Kirby began the 2018 season as the Friday starter before Brnovich took that spot a few weeks later.
“We’re teammates, so we’re always pulling for one another,” Brnovich said. “Whether you throw on Friday or Saturday, you’re still pitching on the weekend. It’s not like I’m going to be upset or George is going to be upset that we’re not throwing on whatever day. Pitching on the weekend is a big enough honor.”
A few weeks away from Opening Day, the specifics of the rotation remained unclear.
“Whoever Coach thinks is right for the spot,” Kirby said. “As long as we’re both pitching Friday-Saturday, it will scare a lot of teams . . . For me, I would like it to be Friday, but as long as it’s back-to-back, it should be pretty good.”
As the preseason accolades have piled up, Kirby generally has been tabbed as a higher pro prospect, perhaps in part because of his 6-foot-4, 201-pound frame and hard-throwing ability. His fastball clocks routinely in the 93-95 mph range, topping at 98. He ranks No. 38 on the Top 200 Prospects list.
Kirby, a Rye, N.Y., product liked the possibilities when he chose Elon. He pretty much knew he wasn’t going to take the pro route out of high school, even though the Mets made him a courtesy pick in the 32nd round.
“I knew I’d fit in right away and get an opportunity to play as a freshman,” he said.
Kirby used a spot in the Cape Cod League last summer to add to his profile. While successful with Harwich with 28 strikeouts in 15 innings (giving up two runs), it gave him an idea of what he needed to work on.
“I had to use all my pitches this summer. The changeup was working very well,” Kirby said. “It was a good experience because it’s something I need to get used to, just being able to pitch against all those guys.”
He returned to campus in the fall intent on improving his slider.
Brnovich, who is from Milton, Ga., emerged as a second-team All-American last year, in part by leading the country in strikeouts for a long stretch. He ended up with a program-record 147 strikeouts in 105 innings and earned a spot on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team in 2018.
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The 2019 fifth-rounder had a breakthrough performance after initially struggling at the alternate training site.
But Brnovich doesn’t have the same kind of power profile as Kirby. He is listed at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds and controls his low-90s fastball well, despite an effortful delivery.
Brnovich said he enjoyed his experience with Team USA and didn’t feel out of place among a collegiate roster stocked with prospects from power conferences. He pitched 6.2 innings and allowed three hits and three walks while striking out 10.
“Being from a small school was pretty special, pretty cool coming from a different (background) than a lot of those other guys,” Brnovich said. “I think it’s a good thing, coming from a smaller school. Baseball is a game where if you can play, you can play. There was no bias against me or anything.”
With Brnovich and Kirby in the mix this fall’s pro day naturally attracted a considerable buzz at Latham Park.
“For us, it’s really just taking it easy and having a normal day,” Brnovich said. “The more stress you put on yourself, the harder it is to do what needs to be done. I just treated it like it was another day of practice.”
Brnovich went 8-2, 1.71 in 15 starts last year. Kirby, also making 15 starts, went 10-3 and posted a 2.89 ERA with 96 strikeouts in 90.1 innings.
No matter how the Phoenix line up their rotation this spring, Brnovich and Kirby will feed off each other and the internal competition to be the staff ace.
“If Brno goes out there and gives you six, and Kirby knows he pitches the next day, he’s thinking, ‘I’m going to try to give you seven,’ ” Kennedy said of the duo’s mindset last spring.
“They compete against each other in a way that makes them both better. They both are elite arms at this point in their careers in college baseball. They both have a competitive gear of wanting to be the guy. I think they help each other to be successful.”