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Rocky Mount High grad working way up Washington’s farm system

By Matt Lawell

Special to the Telegram

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HARRISBURG, Pa. – Brian Goodwin is supposed to play center and lead off in another Harrisburg Senators game scheduled to start in a little more than an hour.

Nobody can find him.

Not out on the Metro Bank Park field, where the Binghamton Mets are finished with batting practice. Not in the dugout. Not on the concourse. And most certainly not anywhere in the clubhouse, a sectioned and tiered retreat secured against frequent Susquehanna River floods by doors designed to secure bank vaults.

“Goody?” one coach asked. “Is he still here?”

“We sent him up to Triple-A, I think,” another coach laughed.

“Big leagues,” someone else chimed in from the trainer’s room.

Someone else always watches Goodwin. Major league scouts and Washington Nationals player development personnel some of the time, teammates and coaches more often, fans just about every night. This moment might be the first during his month in Harrisburg when no one knows exactly where he is.

“He has to be somewhere,” a Senators staffer said.

Turns out he went for a walk, a temporary escape from the grind of the park.

Later that night, he knocks around Mets pitchers for three singles, reaches base four times in five plate appearances, fires a strike from center to home plate to beat a runner by more than eight feet and save a run in the second inning and helps push across the winning run in the bottom of the ninth thanks to a hard run to first.

It’s his best game in almost a month.

Maybe he should go for walks more often.

 

Remember when Goodwin led the Rocky Mount High baseball team to the 2008 NCHSAA 3-A state championship? When pitchers all across the state walked him every other plate appearance out of fear and respect? When he made the game look easy? That was four long years ago.

Four years.

A whole new crop of Gryphons have walked into the halls of the high school for the first time and walked out with diplomas since Goodwin last played in navy and gold.

How much has Goodwin changed in four years?

He still calls Rocky Mount home.

The Nationals selected him 34th overall in the draft a year ago and handed him a $3 million bonus, but he still drives the same weathered Honda Accord he learned to drive eight days after he turned 16.

His manager, former big leaguer Matthew Lecroy, chides him every day for that decision.

“If you have a $3 million signing bonus,” Lecroy said, “you don’t need to drive a car with 800,000 miles on it.”

Goodwin smiles and shakes his head. “We live 10 minutes away. We’re on the bus half the year. What do I need?” he asked. “An Escalade? A Ferrari?”

More important, Goodwin still carries the same disciplined approach at the plate and in the field. Lecroy said Goodwin is “already pretty good at swinging at strikes,” and the statistics back him up. During his first 58 games this season with the Hagerstown Suns of the Low-A South Atlantic League, Goodwin forced 43 walks and struck out 39 times.

Goodwin has struggled during his first 28 games with Harrisburg of the Double-A Eastern League, with 33 strikeouts in 28 games, but has walked 14 times.

“He has had very competitive at-bats on a daily basis,” Nationals player development director Doug Harris said. “He has hit a lot of balls hard that he doesn’t have a lot to show for. For him, it’s learning what pitchers are going to do to him in certain counts, different looks from different types of pitchers. “We knew there was going to be a learning curve, him going to Double-A and skipping a league.”

Goodwin wants to play right along that curve. All of his coaches played at least three seasons in the majors.

“They know what a big leaguer looks like,” he said.

Big leaguers turn in stretches like Goodwin did at Hagerstown, where he batted .324 during 58 games, scored 47 runs and drove in 38 more, hit 18 doubles and nine homers, even stole 15 bases. His averages and counting statistics are lower at Harrisburg.

He is also the youngest player on the team by more than five months.

Goodwin often shows what he can do. That strike from center last week stands out. So does a home run a week before that bounced off a 12-foot-tall inflatable peanut M&M on the deck beyond the outfield wall.

“He continues to get big hits,” Lecroy said. “That’s the most impressive thing I’ve seen so far.”

Goodwin will turn 22 in November and might be a little more than a season – a couple hundred games, tops – from a spot in center at Nationals Park in Washington, surrounded by stars like Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Gio Gonzalez.

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said last season he has a “huge upside.”

The brains at Baseball America, the premier source for player development news, said during the offseason he “needs time to develop, but he has the tools to be an impact center fielder in the top third of a big league lineup.”

His manager said last week th­at “all this is fun, when you have a kid in Double-A who has a chance to be a really, really good big leaguer.”

And he knows what a big leaguer looks like.

 

 

So many great athletes have called Rocky Mount home at some point during their lives.

Former big leaguer Mike Tyson and all-star Chuck Hinton were born here.

Kite Thomas died here long after his last season in the majors. Hall of Famer Buck Leonard lived and loved so many years here.

Where will Goodwin wind up among them? Will he win championships? Will he cash in? Will he bring attention to a city most know more for an interstate than anything else?

Or will he just play baseball?

“I really went into this with no expectations,” Goodwin said. “The whole draft, the whole first year, everything. No expectations. You can’t be disappointed. You can be surprised.

“Whatever they feel is best for me to do, I take it and run with it.”

Goodwin is so young, so talented and so precocious. The world is in front of him, just two big steps from the best team in baseball. He will probably move out of Rocky Mount for good in another season or two, and that Honda Accord is bound for his rearview mirror.

He has his eye on an Audi.

For now, though, he can be all the things he has been without expectations, without eyes on him every moment.

He can just play.

 

 

Matt LaWell is a former Telegram sports writer. His current project is A Minor League Season, a five-month reporting road trip around the country to all 120 full-season, affiliated minor-league baseball teams with his wife, former Telegram education reporter Carolyn LaWell. Read their stories online at AMinorLeagueSeason.com and follow their adventures on Twitter at
@AMinorLgSeason.

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