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Outfielder-pitcher Aaron Brown is Pepperdine's multitalented leader

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In a game of specialization, Aaron Brown is a throwback, the guy who can pick up a basketball and know how to shoot it, pick up a football and know how to throw it, and pick up a dart and know how to aim it. Someone who can run a 6.4 60-yard dash, throw a 93 mph fastball and hit a baseball more than 400 feet.

A well of natural athleticism dipped with a wild amount of competitiveness, Brown is the athlete other athletes dream of becoming.

After two seasons of struggling with injuries and consistency, Brown is the catalyst for a Pepperdine baseball team that has advanced to the super regional round of the NCAA tournament — the furthest the Waves have advanced since 1992, when they won an unlikely national championship.

Led by Brown, who was chosen in Friday's third round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Philadelphia Phillies, Pepperdine (42-16) plays Texas Christian (45-15) in a best-of-three-games series that begins Saturday in Fort Worth.

"It's so rare to find kids who can actually do so many athletic things," said Pepperdine Coach Steve Rodriguez. "That's what makes him special. If I asked him to put on some catcher's gear, he would say, 'OK, I just need a left-handed catcher's mitt.'"

At Chatsworth High, Brown was All-State as a senior, when he was 9-2 as a pitcher and batted .478. Instead of signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates after being drafted in the 17th round, he headed to Pepperdine — and struggled almost immediately.

Brown didn't look like himself. Didn't play like himself. He lost the closer's role as a freshman, batted .265, then suffered a broken right thumb, underwent surgery and jammed a glove over his cast so he could pitch. Relegated by his injury to the mound, Brown finished the season with a 4.64 earned-run average.

After the thumb healed, Brown returned to both pitching and playing the outfield in fall ball, and the coaching staff noticed significant progress. But in the fourth game of the 2013 season, Brown suffered a broken bone in his right hand. That sent him back to the mound, back to cramming his glove over a bandaged hand, and back to struggling. He was erratic, striking out 49 but walking 31, with a 4.95 ERA.

As a draft-eligible sophomore, he dropped to the 30th round. Something wasn't working.

Or, rather, he wasn't able to work enough.

Finally getting to both pitch and play in the field changed the trajectory of Brown's career.

"I think playing in the outfield relaxes him. … When he has no other outlet, like the last two years just pitching, I think it's hard for him because he does so many things so well," pitching coach Jon Strauss said. "For him to just be pigeonholed, at this level when he can be excellent at both, is hard.

"Playing the outfield and being able to hit and then once a week being able to do what he does, I think it's a little easier for him to channel it in."

On a typical weekend this season, Brown played center field Friday and Saturday and batted .310 with a team-high 12 home runs and 47 runs batted in. As a starting pitcher on Sunday, he led the team in wins and had a 12-1 record with a 2.07 ERA.

Brown said it took him until this year to realize that he "didn't need to be at max effort with every pitch," because there was no other outlet for his competitive energy when he couldn't play in the field. He would wait around all week to pitch, and by the time he got on the mound it was all or nothing. The outfield calmed him down.

Before the draft, Brown said that he expected to sign, but scouts seemed to be split about whether to use him as a pitcher or outfielder.

"I'm very aggressive at the plate and outfield, and I love playing every day. So if it were my choice, I would say, 'Yeah, give me a shot at the outfield and let me see what happens.' But you know what? I love doing both, so whatever they chose for me, that's what I'm going to do and I'm going to give it my best."

For now, though, the player so talented he couldn't be successful at one thing if he wasn't successful at them all doesn't have to worry. Pepperdine is happy to have him do both.

everett.cook@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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