Editor’s note: This story was originally published June 5, 2009. Former Longhorns first baseman Brandon Belt, profiled here, will play in Saturday’s Alumni Game.
At 6 feet 5 inches tall, Brandon Belt has the makings of a top pitching prospect. Tall and lanky, he had great leverage off the mound and the perfect frame to add muscle. He had the angles to blow his low-90s fastball past hitters. He was left-handed, which never hurts a pitcher’s chances.
In the middle of his dominant senior season a the ace of Hudson High School, a small school in East Texas, something changed for Belt. His velocity dropped below 90 mph. As his fastball’s speed dipped, so did his draft status.
“I had a chance to do really good, and go really high, but my velocity wasn’t as high as it once was, and I kind of slipped,” Belt said.
Weeks after graduating high school, the Boston Red Sox drafted Belt in the 11th round of the 2006 draft. He became a dreaded “draft and follow” prospect, with Red Sox scouts tracking his progress during the summer before offering a contract.
The pressure of scouts and radar guns continually looming over his every move was too much for Belt. His professional opportunity was slipping away.
“It was really tough on me, especially being 18 and all you want to do is play Major League Baseball,” Belt said. “I tried to stay positive, but there was a lot of pressure.”
When he signed to pitch for the Longhorns that year, Belt was still focused on chasing his dream of becoming a major league pitcher.
“I was looking to go back into the draft,” Belt said. “That was on my mind, that is what I was looking to do. That is why I went to JUCO.”
Belt knew he could quickly improve his draft status by regaining his velocity at the junior college level, where he would also be eligible for the draft after his freshman year, an opportunity he would not have had if he came to Texas.
As a pitcher and designated hitter, Belt led San Jacinto College in Houston to the Junior College World Series, batting .441 with 10 home runs in his freshman year, earning all-conference designated hitter honors and the 2007 JUCO World Series Big Stick Award.
Belt didn’t improve his draft status; the Atlanta Braves selected him in the 11th round as a hitting prospect. That’s when Belt decided to head to Austin.
“I realized a lot of things,” Belt said. “You learn to be a team player, and if you are that, you will usually be a pretty good prospect. On a team with some of the best players in the country, just like I was, it is about winning as a team- you are not worried about your draft status.”
Free from the pressure, Belt was able to relax. Last season and his first at Texas, Belt conquered a new role, starting at first base while occasionally pitching out of the bullpen. Belt batter .319 and led the team with 65 RBIs. Consistent the whole season, he thrived in the Big 12 tournament, leading Texas to the title and winning the tournament’s most outstanding player award.
Texas coach Augie Garrido saw what Belt could do at the plate and what he was learning could do at first base, but he believed Belt needed to focus on being a baseman.
“Yeah, we thought he was going to be a pitcher for us,” Garrido said. “But that changed for us last year. We knew he had to focus on one or the other. When he pitched and performed poorly, it had a negative effect on him. He felt like he was a failure and it got away from him.”
This season, Belt has thrived in his role as the anchor of the Longhorns lineup. His .340 batting average, .574 slugging percentage, .432 on-base percentage and eight home runs all lead the team- and his 37 RBIs are one off of the leader.
With TCU (39-18) heading to UFCU Disch-Falk Field for this weekend’s Super Regional, Belt is ready to keep his hot hitting alive, fueling the Longhorns’ (44-13-1) national championship hopes. The Horned Frogs earned their trip to the Super Regional with a walk-off win, capturing their host Forth Worth regional with a 5-4 victory over 2006 and 2007 national champion Oregon State. In the matchup between the two teams earlier this season, Texas cruised past the Horned Frogs with a 6-0 mid-week win.
Although he rarely throws from the mound anymore, Belt is comfortable about his role with the Longhorns, who enter this weekend’s home regional as the national No. 1 seed.
And while Belt might not play a role on the nation’s best pitching staff, he may have the nation’s best opposite-field power. While many left-handed power hitters pull the ball to right field, Belt thrives in driving doubles, and sometimes home runs, to the left.
“In junior college, my coaches told me to hit the ball out that way,” Belt said. “I used to be a pull-hitter, always trying to pull big hits to the right, but at San Jacinto they said ‘You have a lot of power to left-center.’ So I just did it, and got used to hitting to the opposite field.
The angular Belt has a unique approach at the plate, which is impossible to dissect. Even Garrido is afraid to change anything about his best hitter’s style.
“I don’t understand the mechanics of his swing,” Garrido said. “He is able to do it instinctively, and I have never tried to change it, because we don’t understand it.
What Garrido does understand is Belt’s competitive style.
“He has a very playful side. He is high-energy, upbeat, fun loving- he motivates and loosens up the players and he has fun playing the game,” Garrido said. “He brings a lot of character to the team. Each player has his own individual game, and the goal is to get those games to match up, to become one with teamwork. He really plays a huge role in that.”
Ultra-competitive, Belt is always trying to win, even in pre-game warmup drills.
“He is always messing with [Travis] Tucker and [Brandon] Loy, saying he can outrun them,” Garrido said. “He calls himself a winner, and reminds everyone of that in the running drills. They try to hold him by his belt and cut in front of him to stop him from winning, but he finds a way to win.”
While Texas has failed to make it out of the regional round for three straight seasons, Belt helped the Longhorns find a way to capture two magical wins, though for a few scary moments in the regional’s first game against Army it looked like Texas would have to capture the tournament without its leading hitter.
In the first inning of the opening game against Army, Belt took a fastball to the helmet. The errant pitch struck just under his ear, leaving Belt collapsed on the turf near home plate, blood gushing from a laceration. But Belt pushed through again, and after being cleared at the hospital on Friday night, he was back at the plate for Saturday’s game against Boston College, one that would become the longest game in NCAA history.
In the 14-10 win over Army at the regional final, Belt had two hits, scored two runs and drove in another. His walk in the bottom of the ninth helped load the bases and prepared the way for Preston Clark’s walk-off grand slam.
“Being a junior, I knew I wanted to accept a leadership role, but I’m not usually a real vocal guy, so I decided I would lead on the field,” Belt said.
Belt has kept more than a steady head this season; his bat kept the Longhorns alive when the majority of the team was slumping at the plate. In this weekend’s Super Regional series with TCU, Belt hopes his leadership will pay off with a long-awaited trip to Omaha and the College World Series.
“I know that it is a long season, it is never to late to help the team and have a good season,” Belt said. “When you are young, you forget that when you are struggling.”
Instead of raising his voice, Belt continued to hit. And little by little, his Texas teammates came around.
“It is rewarding, that is what you hope for,” Belt said. “That is what I want to do, make sure to use my experience to help other people come around at the plate.”