By Gary Fauber Assistant Sports Editor | Posted: Monday, June 15, 2015 3:00 am
Brandon Koch became quite the popular guy when he was a West Virginia Miner. His versatility and the big performances he turned in out of the bullpen late in the Miners’ 2013 championship run endeared him to fans.
When the Tampa Bay Rays selected Koch out of Dallas Baptist in the fourth round of last week’s MLB first-year players draft, the first thing to come to mind was, “I wonder if he will end up in Princeton.”
What a support group Koch would have as a P-Ray. Imagine Big Paul invading the turf of Hunnicutt Field!
Alas, it’s not meant to be. Koch signed a $479,200 contract last week and reported Sunday to short-season pro ball — with the Hudson Valley Renegades of the New York-Penn League. He will actually find himself back in the Mountain State, when the Renegades visit new NYPL team West Virginia Black Bears in Morgantown (ironically, the Black Bears are the relocation of the Jamestown Jammers, who resurfaced as a team in the Prospect League and will host the Miners on Tuesday).
But, there will be no Koch in Princeton.
“Unfortunately,” Koch said.
Koch will be just fine. He would have enjoyed getting to play in southern West Virginia again, but he’s excited to get this journey started. Naturally, the chance to play Major League Baseball has been a lifelong dream for the native Texan.
“It was something I have always looked forward to,” Koch said in a phone interview. “It was one of my goals to get drafted, but I have always had the dream of playing in the big leagues. I’m excited to start this venture. This is the first step and I’m just going to take it one step at a time.”
Koch, who just completed his junior season at Dallas Baptist, emerged as one of the top closers in college baseball. He made 26 appearances for the Patriots and had 14 saves. He was 3-2 with a team-best 1.26 earned run average, and opponents could manage just a .160 batting average off the right-hander.
He said he knew after his sophomore season that getting drafted early could be a real possibility.
“I started throwing pretty hard my junior year,” said Koch, whose fastball has topped out at 94 miles per hour and is complemented by an 87-mph slider. “After my freshman year I knew I wanted to make a change. My coaches believed in me and stuck with me.”
Part of that transition has roots in Beckley.
It was the summer after his freshman year that Koch was a key cog in West Virginia’s second straight championship. He began that season as both a pitcher and infielder. As the summer progressed, he was able to concentrate on pitching.
His contribution was undeniable. He made 19 appearances, only two of which were starts. He still finished tied for the league lead with seven wins, going 7-3 with a 2.77 ERA. Opponents hit .193 against him.
“That was a great experience,” Koch said of his time in Beckley. “I was out of my comfort zone, playing away from home for the first time. But we had a great coaching staff with Tim (Epling) and (Danny) Flores. We played baseball every day and won a championship.”
What of that championship? It was a run to remember, largely because people were wondering how the Miners were able to keep plugging.
Injuries, player shutdowns and homesickness led to the roster’s depletion. By the time West Virginia and Quincy met for the league title, both were down to 18 players.
The Miners wound up sweeping the Gems two-games-to-none, and Koch said one of the keys was the chemistry developed by those who stuck it out.
“It was cool. That was a solid corps of guys,” Koch said. “That made it even more of an accomplishment when we won with such a small group of players.
“You could say (his time in Beckley) gave me more confidence and helped me become successful as a player and a person. I learned a lot of things from Tim.”
Koch is excited that Tampa Bay is the organization that was on the other end of last week’s phone call. The Rays have remained a contender in the American League because of their pitching, boasting such names in the past as David Price, James Shields and Scott Kazmir. They’re all gone, but the likes of Chris Archer and closer Brad Boxberger are keeping the Rays going.
“I could not have asked for a better organization,” Koch said.
West Virginia Miners fans will cheer him along, even if they have to do it from afar.
— E-mail: gfauber@
register-herald.com and follow on Twitter