UPDATE: John Brebbia did get in Thursday’s game one, but just for a short time. He was, however, involved in what was seen by analysts as a key play in the game. Coming on in the seventh inning, leadoff hitter Ronald Acuna Jr. hit a screaming shot to right field. Thinking it might be a home run, Acuna Jr. failed to run with urgency. The blast bounced off the wall, was cleanly fielded by right-fielder Dexter Fowler and what should have been a double was just a single. The next Braves hitter, Ozhaino Albies touched Brebbia for another hard shot, this one directly to second baseman Kolten Wong, who made the play for one out. Brebbia was lifted and replaced by Andrew Miller. UPDATE 2: John Brebbia had his second playoff appearance on Monday in game four of the NLDS and it was a big one. He entered with the bases loaded in the seventh inning and two outs and fanned Adam Duvall on a nasty slider to end the inning. The crowd went wild. In all, he pitched two-thirds of an inning and yielded one hit — a misplayed fly ball in right field — and no runs. UPDATE 3: Brebbia made his third playoff appearance in game five, entering in the eighth inning with the game well in hand and the Cardinals on top 13-1. He gave up a hit, no runs and got a strikeout in a full inning of work. His playoff line in total: two innings, three hits, no runs, no walks and two strikeouts. He now has the most playoff appearances by any Elon player ever and the number should grow as he heads into the National League Championship Series against the Washington Nationals.
When John Brebbia took the mound against the Atlanta Braves during the National League Division Series — which happened quickly in this era of extreme bullpen use — he made history. He’s the first former Elon University baseball player to participate in the playoffs in 35 years. And he’s the first former Elon player ever in the NLDS. He’ll get few more chances as the playoffs unfold.
Whatever happens, a playoff appearance will cap a tremendous year for Brebbia, who began the season on the roster for the St. Louis Cardinals, remained there the entire year, recorded his finest overall season as a right-handed relief pitcher and got his first career Major League base hit. Oh yeah, he became a father for the first time, too.
Not bad at all for a 30th round draft pick in 2011 who tumbled to the Independent League before working his back to the minors and a 2017 call-up to the Major Leagues with the Cardinals, one of the storied franchises in baseball history. I’ve written about Brebbia’s debut in 2017. I focused then on what a rarity it is that players from Elon make a Major League roster. In 2017 and 2018 he bounced from St. Louis to the Triple-A team in Memphis before catching a permanent roster spot this year. A few weeks ago I wrote about him again and spoke to him about his dedicated climb up the tricky minor league ladder. I interviewed him for a Magazine of Elon story exploring the likelihood that he could soon be joined by a lot of former Elon players now in the minor leagues.
Among the first people to reach out to Brebbia after the Cardinals finally clinched the NL Central on the last day of the season, was Elon coach Mike Kennedy, a Cardinals fan who led the Phoenix program when Brebbia was a student-athlete. Kennedy told me he sent Brebbia a congratulatory text on his season and the team winning the division and making the playoffs for the first time since 2015. Kennedy hopes to travel to St. Louis and watch game three and game four (if necessary), but wasn’t sure on Monday if he could make that happen. No matter, he’s proud of what Brebbia has accomplished.
“I am sure John is excited about the playoffs and will most certainly appreciate it more when they take the field and when the playoff run ends,” Kennedy said. “Very hard to make playoffs so I know he will appreciate that and enjoy the moment.
Just making the Major Leagues is rare, magnify that 10-fold when it comes to playoff appearances. Most players never get there. The last former Elon player to actually perform in the playoffs is the late Greg Booker, a big right-handed pitcher from Burlington who was with the San Diego Padres in 1984 when they played the Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series and the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. Booker, a former high school standout at Burlington Cummings before coming to Elon, had one appearance in the NLCS, pitching two scoreless innings, yielding two hits, one walk and notching two strikeouts. He also had one World Series appearance in the Padres loss to the Tigers. He gave up one run (earned) in one inning of work but walked four.
Booker, who was taken far too young on March 30, 2019 of cancer, was the son-in -law of then San Diego General Manager Jack McKeon, a 1956 Elon alum who pulled off one of the most notable postseason baseball feats of the last 20 years. As manager, he guided the Florida Marlins to a world championship in 2003 at age 72. Trader Jack still calls the Elon area home but remains in the game as a consultant for the Washington Nationals.
Barring injury, Brebbia will almost certainly face a few Atlanta Braves hitters at some point. Outside of a couple of poor outings, he’s been among the most consistent contributors coming out of the bullpen for the Cardianals. He was called to the mound 66 times this season, compiling 72 and two third innings pitched. He gave up 59 hits, 31 runs, 29 earned runs, six homers, 27 walks, 87 strikeouts with a 3.59 ERA. From 2017 to now he has 161 career innings pitched in the Major Leagues, which ranks him third on the all-time list of former Elon players, tied with Booker. Greg Harris, an Elon ace in the 1980s who also had a solid career with San Diego, is No. 1, per Steve Roth, who charts everything Elon baseball.
Brebbia has become something of a fan and media favorite in St. Louis. He has a dry sense of humor. His beard gets him a lot of notice, too. He was interviewed during the team’s champagne celebration on Sunday.
Like Kennedy, I’m a longtime Cardinals fan so I’ll have a couple of reasons for watching the NLDS. And I hope to see Brebbia get an opportunity to compete on the big stage. I just hope the announcers remember that it’s Elon University — not Elon College.
For more about the Cardinals and Braves series click here.