Houston Astros’ Hunter Brown looks completely at ease in his MLB debut

Parents have a unique ability to look at their child and see their past, present, and future all at once, with each subsequent iteration blurring on top of the previous like translucent slides on an old-school overhead projector.

Hunter Brown’s parents realize some things have changed since he was a 2-year-old taking swings with a Wiffle ball bat, a schoolboy eagerly receiving chewing gum from his uncle in the dugout before each match, and a budding self-taught high school pitcher who studied video like it was his job.

Now his focus is on baiting swings rather than taking them. He traded pre-game chewing gum for ranch-flavored sunflower seeds. And studying cinematic pitching is actually his job, with a group of highly trained people available to help him.

When Kim and Kevin Brown flew to Houston from Michigan to see their youngest child make his MLB debut for the Astros on Monday, however, they couldn’t separate that experience from anything that had come before it.

In the Astros’ 1-0 victory over the Rangers, Hunter Brown pitched six shutout innings for his first major league victory. He was the first Astro to record a quality start in his MLB debut since Jarred Cosart on July 12, 2013.

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Brown was selected by the Wayne State University Astros in the fifth round of the 2019 MLB Draft. He was promoted to Class AAA Sugar Land at the end of last season and had been there all season, waiting for the next step.

He arrived last week because he and his family were convinced he would. And on Monday, Brown became just the fifth Astros pitcher in the last six seasons to make his major league debut as a starter, joining Tyler Ivey, Jose Urquidy, Corbin Martin and Josh James.

“Patience and faith, all the way through,” Kevin Brown said. “He is very result-oriented, very goal-oriented. So when he achieves his goals and sees the results, he is very calm. Everything is going according to plan, so there is no impatience. And I think he knew it was coming. I know he was hoping it would happen, so I think it happened just in time.

Brown’s parents, sister, uncle and girlfriend all donned custom No. 58 Astros jerseys to lead Brown’s fan club seated in Section 122, which also included a contingent from Sugar Land. Triple-A manager Mickey Storey and a handful of Space Cowboys players, including receivers Korey Lee and Scott Manea, traveled to Houston on their day off.

Brown was selected to the major league roster on Thursday, and by Monday he had been around the Astros for much of the week, but while the team was on the road. Shortly before game time, he realized he had never been on the pitch at Minute Maid Park.

He came out at 5:15 p.m., 55 minutes before the scheduled first pitch, and lingered in the bullpen for a while before starting to run and stretch on his own in the outfield. Ten minutes passed before receiver Javier Bracamonte joined him.

With five minutes remaining, Brown’s name blared over the speakerphone as he walked in lockstep with catcher Martín Maldonado from the bullpen to the dugout, with pitching coach Josh Miller following directly behind. them. Brown didn’t look up, perhaps resisting the temptation to start savoring the moment too soon.

“It was nice to hear from the fans,” he said. “It was great. Not a knock on the other fanbases, but yeah, I guess it was a little stronger than expected. It was definitely really cool.

He led the charge out of the dugout minutes later and showed no visible rookie jitters in a nine-pitch, 1-2-3 first inning that included strikeouts from two All-Stars. Brown froze Marcus Semien with a 96mph fastball near the top outside corner of the strike zone, then dispatched Corey Seager swinging via an 85mph curveball below the knees.

“I was definitely nervous,” Brown said. “I would say as the outing went on, they calmed down. But overall, I mean, I was definitely, definitely nervous.

Brown’s unflappable demeanor and ability to compartmentalize are key to his effectiveness as a pitcher. It’s also just who he is deep down, though those closest to him can decipher the emotion from subtle clues etched into his face.

“His smile betrays him when he lets him out, when he’s really shitting because he’s so happy,” his sister, Maddie Brown, said. “But I think overall he just tries to keep his pace in check because that’s what he has to do. It’s really his personality. When he’s outside and you’re watching him, it’s “It’s still Hunter. He’s not that completely different person.”

Take Brown’s nonchalance when he found out he was headed to the big leagues.

“He played it so cool,” said his girlfriend, Caley Gibson. “He’s like, ‘Guess what?’ I’m like, ‘What?’ And he’s like, ‘I’ve been called.’ ”

On Brown’s 24th birthday, he was told the Astros were adding him to the taxi squad the next day as a frontrunner to put him on the major league roster later that week.

“August 29 was one of the best days of my life twice,” Kevin said.

Brown’s mother, Kim, was working her usual night shift as a hospital nurse when she missed a call from her son while in a patient’s isolation room. She immediately, instinctively knew it was a summons. The phone rang a second time. She ripped off his protective gear and called him back.

“Honestly, I had a feeling,” she said. “Hunter works all year, always has his baseball. He would find a way.

“If he says he’s going to do it, he does it,” Maddie added. “He’s always been like that.”

Brown’s opportunity came, ironically, at the expense of the pitcher he sought to emulate. Justin Verlander’s calf injury paved the way for Brown to the major league pitching staff.

“Not only did he grow up idolizing it, but he mirrored it,” Brown’s father said of Verlander. “They have a lot of the same movement. If you ever see a layover of the two on a screen, they are very similar in approach.

Maldonado, who coached Brown and three relievers in Monday’s shutout, made an off-the-cuff comparison between the rookie and Verlander after the game.

“He looked like JV back then. Young joint venture,” Maldonado said. “Big curveball, power slider, power fastball, locating the fastball better than I thought it was going to be. … We all knew going in that he was the #1 prospect for a reason. His stuff is electric.

Verlander was in the dugout to watch Brown’s spectacular performance on Monday.

“He said, ‘Welcome to the big leagues, man. Nice job,” Brown said.

Having veterans like Verlander and Maldonado to guide him will no doubt benefit Brown, who has attributed his major league comfort beyond those two men to the welcoming confines of the Astros’ clubhouse.

“It’s just a great group of guys, from the coaching staff to the players and everyone who works here, so it’s been really easy,” Brown said. “So my nerves were mostly baseball. It was less about fitting in and things like that because they made the transition so easy for me.

In the spirit of a smooth transition, Astros manager Dusty Baker was content to leave Brown’s pregame routine uninterrupted.

“He doesn’t need words of encouragement. Sometimes we talk too much,” Baker said. “Get out and pitch, follow Maldy, follow the game plan. It’s probably something he’s been waiting for his whole life, leave him alone.”

Leave the pep talks to Brown’s parents, who separately sent her a morning text message containing a similar sentiment.

“I told him he belonged here,” Kevin Brown said. “He has the qualities to play at this level. I hope it’s just a different place to go to work every day.

At Minute Maid Park on Monday, Hunter looked at home.

Neal T. Doss