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7 Innings in Baseball Heaven: Brian McAfee’s Rise to Baseball Stardom

Brian McAfee’s stock has been on the rise from the moment he picked up a baseball for the Big Red. As a freshman, McAfee solidified himself in the role of rotation ace and has yet to release the stranglehold he’s had on the position ever since. Even after missing almost the entirety of the 2014 season, or maybe because of it, the allure of the big right-hander has traveled further than the reaches of the Ivy League.

In the fall, McAfee agreed to join the ACC’s Duke Blue Devils following his graduation from Cornell, utilizing his final year of NCAA eligibility. McAfee would be a terrific addition for the Blue Devils, that is, if he does not get drafted first, and he took one giant step towards getting a nod in the June MLB Draft with his pitching performance against #1 ranked Virginia on Sunday March 1st. For anyone wondering whether McAfee could handle the ACC, his seven inning shutout performance had people questioning whether the ACC could handle him.

Mac, as many of us know him, has always been the model of consistency on the mound in his four years with the Big Red. His ability to throw multiple pitches for strikes and dominating presence on the mound has allowed him to go deep into games even early on in his career. But even after dominating the Ivy League with a 9-3 record, 2.88 ERA and 74 strikeouts over 122 innings pitched, he was not considered a draft prospect due to a lack of speed on his fastball. For a righty who could not touch 90 mph with his heater, there was almost no chance he would be a draft prospect come his junior or senior season. McAfee, the epitome of a great college pitcher.

Things began to change for McAfee following a nagging back injury that kept him out last season. He got stronger, continued to develop as a pitcher, and added speed to a fastball that he was already throwing with great command to go along with a big sweeping slider that has always been his go-to breaking pitch. Where his fastball was clocking in the 85-87 MPH range his sophomore season, it is now up to 88-90 MPH.

“He’s always had outstanding fastball command and movement,” said Hudson Belinsky, a writer and scout for Baseball America. “With his back finally healthy and added muscle to his frame, he’s shown his best velocity this year, consistently pitching in the upper 80s and bumping 90 at times.”

Armed also with a change-up that he throws away from left handers and a curveball that functions as a swing and miss chase pitch, Mac finally got some national prospect attention when Baseball America named him third on their list of Top 10 Prospects in the Ivy League, but even then, the piece was written by Belinsky, a terrific young scout and former member of Big Red Sports Network who has seen McAfee arguably more than any scout in the country. It was a small win for a big game pitcher.

“His command is unparalleled in the Ivy League this year, and he can attack hitters with four pitches, each of which shows the ability to miss bats and generate poor contact,” Belinsky said of naming McAfee as an Ivy League prospect. “With a big league defense behind him, he could certainly develop into an innings eater in a Major League rotation.”

Growing up in Washington State, McAfee got his start in baseball at the tee-ball level, where many college players first began their careers. Cornell nearly lost its ace at the age of 6 years old, when McAfee retired from his baseball career to pursue another sport, soccer.

“I started playing baseball when I was 5 years old, but I quit after my first season of tee-ball because I wanted to ‘focus’ on soccer,” said McAfee of the early years of his playing career.  “I decided baseball was fun again a year later and started playing catch with my dad every day in our backyard; I haven’t looked back since.”

As evidenced by his early interest in both soccer and baseball, McAfee is a natural athlete. In high school, he ran three seasons of cross country alongside a baseball playing career that saw him star as his team’s third baseman and middle of the order bat as well as ace starting pitcher. Outside of organized sports, one of his major hobbies is backpacking and he’ll play pick up basketball, soccer and football, just in case you were not already convinced of his athletic prowess. His weirdest athletic hobby, “probably kicking field goals.”

It is hard to believe that McAfee, who went 10-0 with a 0.55 ERA throughout his senior year of high school garnering a Washington State 4A Player of the Year Honor in the process, did not truly consider pitching as his calling card for a college career in baseball until his Junior year of high school.

“[During] my junior year of high school I hit really well and thought I was going to have an opportunity to play third base in college; then that summer I developed a slider and realized I had an opportunity to pitch as well,” said McAfee.

It was his pitching that caught Big Red pitching coach Scott Marsh’s attention at a showcase in Oregon, and it has been his pitching that has made the Big Red’s decision to bring him onto the roster look like a steal for an Ivy league team that cannot offer scholarships to its athletes. McAfee was immediately impressed with the Cornell academic environment and baseball program upon his visit in September of 2010, and ultimately chose to attend Cornell in order to pursue his dreams of playing Division I baseball while studying engineering at one of the best undergraduate engineering programs in the country.

McAfee has been one of the most valuable recruits in recent years, becoming the team’s ace within weeks of his first start in a Big Red uniform. Despite a run through his freshman year that saw him go a combined 16-0 in starts ranging back to his senior year of high school, it was not until his sophomore season that he truly gave up his dream of being a college hitter.

“I started focusing on pitching my second year here at Cornell. I’ve always liked hitting just as much as pitching and didn’t want to give it up,” McAfee said of the tough decision.

Fast forward to his outing on March 1, 2015 against the best team in the country, the University of Virginia Cavaliers. It was a game the Big Red were never supposed to play, but as a result of a cancellation of the team’s three game road series against George Mason, they instead traveled to Myrtle Beach South Carolina to face Seton Hall, Hartford and Virginia. Knowing the Cavaliers were looming large on the back end of the weekend, Head Coach Bill Walkenbach opted to save his ace for the Sunday match-up.

From the moment he took the mound, McAfee looked special. After his offense netted him a 1-run lead in the top of the first, the Big Red right-hander would not surrender a base runner past second base through seven shut out innings. He scattered Virginia’s seven hits and managed to strike out seven Cavaliers in the process while walking none.

“It was one of those great days where I didn’t have to think about mechanics or spotting up pitches. I felt confident with any of my 5 pitches and just went out there and had a good time. It felt like home in Seattle with the 50 degree weather and light rain, so I’d like to think that helped,” McAfee recounted.

McAfee was a master card player on the mound, mixing his pitches to keep one of the best teams in the country off balance. He carried himself with composure, as he always does, but this time with the bright lights shining on him.

Brian McAfee strikes out Daniel Pinero. Cornell leads Virginia 2-0 here in the bottom of the fifth. #sundaybaseball #d1baseball #upsetalert

A video posted by Baseball America (@baseballamerica) on Mar 1, 2015 at 8:35am PST

As scouts lined the the field to see a slew of Virginia’s top draft talent on a day where they probably expected to watch the powerhouse ACC team make easy work of the one time Ivy League Champion Big Red, McAfee stole the show. With each passing inning, he continued to string together a performance that had the Cavaliers holding their breaths and scouts furiously taking notes on this unexpected gem, a diamond in the rough. They had come to see Goliath, but David was putting on the more intriguing performance.

McAfee knows how important this outing was for his future career as a baseball player. He shared,”It was great to get some exposure in front of scouts against a quality team like Virginia. I feel like my style of pitching translates well to the next level, but often times you have to throw low-mid 90’s to be noticed as a right-handed pitcher.”

After seven of McAfee’s best innings in his career, the Big Red made what could only have been a difficult decision. With 95 pitches to his ledger and the season still very young, McAfee was removed from the game and the Virginia bats flourished, driving in five runs over two innings. It was a hard choice to make, but the right one for this team. To preserve McAfee’s arm in a game that ultimately did not matter with Ivy League contests looming ever closer was a shrewd choice for the betterment of the team, and Captain McAfee is all about the betterment of the team.

Despite the loss, the gem that the 177 in attendance witnessed over seven magical innings may have transformed McAfee’s career. Dominance against the best of the best cannot and will not be ignored, and that is one of the beauties of baseball. That on any day, the most unexpected star can shine the brightest, and McAfee seized his opportunity. It only takes one great outing to propel you into the minds of baseball operations teams around the country, and this was it for the Washington State native. McAfee solidified in the minds of scouts what many of us who see him every day have known for a long time: this kid can flat out pitch.

“He makes so few mistakes that he forces hitters to swing at his pitch and he mixes so well that you can’t sit on anything,” said Big Red Center Fielder Jd Whetsel. “[Facing McAfee] you feel very uncomfortable, always off balance, and pressured to put the ball in play early in the count.”

What makes covering a player like McAfee so enjoyable and playing with him inspirational, is the person behind the now iconic #23 on the back of his jersey. Just ask anyone who knows him and they’ will tell you that he has left an impact on them. It is not just his teammates and coaches; it’s people across the entire Cornell Athletic community and University as a whole.

Mac is one of the most jovial players to take the field on any given day. He loves the game so much he can barely contain his ear-to-ear smile when he’s on a baseball field, and his attitude is contagious. It is why he was selected as one of the team’s three team captains prior to the season. He is not a loud rah-rah kind of leader, but his respect for the game, humble attitude, willingness to help his teammates, and incredible playing ability make him a standout candidate for the job. To be sure, he is a piece of a terrific three headed team captainship alongside Whetsel and fellow pitcher Nick Busto, who together will play a key role in this team’s growth and maturation process as the season progresses.

Said fellow captain Whetsel: “He’s an incredible “lead by example guy” he shows everyone the amount of work you need to put in to be successful.”

Former Big Red captain Ben Swinford ’14 also weighed in about McAfee’s intangibles as a leader. “[McAfee’s] unwavering work ethic, confident leadership that player’s want to play behind, and consistency on and off the field made him an ideal candidate for the captainship.”

On a team as close nit as the Big Red, McAfee’s contributions to the team dynamic do not go unnoticed. Freshman corner infielder Trey Baur credits McAfee for helping to integrate this year’s freshman class onto the roster. He also singled out McAfee as “a great role model for all of the freshman.”

“I’ve been helped out by captains my previous 3 years here at Cornell so I’m happy to be able to give back to this team and push other people to succeed,” said McAfee.

With a focus on making his teammates better and the ultimate goal of leading the Big Red to an Ivy League Championship on his mind, McAfee shies away from the attention on his personal accolades. In fact, when I approached him about this piece, he laughed nervously, honored to be recognized but preferring to spotlight the work of his teammates.

As the leader of arguably the strongest pitching staff in the Ivy League, Brian McAfee showed the college baseball world that both he and the stable of pitchers behind him are ready to compete on a national stage in 2015. Sure there are a lot of obstacles in their way, but if this team can find its stride offensively, look out.

When the Big Red won an Ivy League Championship during McAfee’s freshman season and traveled to North Carolina for their first regional appearance since 1977, McAfee was called upon to pitch the elimination game against ECU, a game the Big Red ultimately lost. It was his first loss in a Big Red uniform. In their two games however, Cornell showed that they could compete with the best in baseball, nearly beating ECU and ending their first game against UNC with the tying run at the plate.

McAfee and his team would love nothing more than to return to a regional this season, to attend to some unfinished business that started three seasons ago. The legacy of this year’s senior class started with their influence on the Ivy League Championship team in 2012 as freshman, and the opportunity to return to the biggest stage in college baseball is a goal this team has always strived towards. If they can make a return, look out for #23. If his performance against UVA was any indication, Brian McAfee is at his best when the world, at least the baseball world, is watching.

“It’s definitely a confidence booster, but I’m hungry for improvement; I like to push myself the most when things are going well,” said the Big Red righty.  “Joe Torre was famous for keeping calm when things were going poorly and pushing his players when they were going well, so I try to live by the quote, ‘Things are never as good as they seem, and never as bad as they seem.'”

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