Dreams have become reality for two St. Charles County natives when they made their Major League debuts earlier this season. Nathan Orf and Brett Graves, products of Francis Howell High, have fantasized about this moment since they were kids. Each taking their own paths to reach the highest level in baseball.
Francis Howell, a high school on the outskirts of Busch Wildlife, has been around since 1881. The high school established their baseball program 73 years later; a program that would go on to win 4 State Championships in 11 appearances.
As seniors in high school, Orf (2008) and Graves (2011) lead their respective teams to the State Championship game. Coach Perkins, who was at the helm for both playoff runs, managed to place 2nd in 2008 and winning it all in 2011.
Notably, it doesn’t take long to find either player’s names in the record book at Howell. Primarily a catcher back in the day, Orf is currently 2nd in career batting average; as well as tied for 2nd in single-season batting average. Graves, who played shortstop when he wasn’t pitching, finished high school 3rd in career batting average—only 7 points behind Orf.
Closing the Yearbook
After not being selected in the 2008 MLB Draft, Orf had one option—to play college ball. The 5’8 catcher spent two seasons with the University of Illinois-Chicago, before moving onto Baylor University to play in the Big 12. Due to the transfer, he was forced to redshirt in 2011 to satisfy NCAA rules. Unaffected from sitting out a full season, the junior returned as the Bears’ everyday designated hitter and batted .303 with a .453 on-base percentage. Overall, Orf had an exceptional 4-year career in the NCAA with numerous honors to testify. Once again though, MLB clubs were reluctant to draft the decorated collegiate standout. Fortunately for Orf, the Milwaukee Brewers took a chance and signed him as an undrafted free agent.
Unlike Orf—Graves was drafted in the 26th round as a right-handed pitcher by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. Instead of electing to play for his hometown team, he opted to honor his commitment to the University of Missouri. In just three seasons as a Tiger, Graves appeared in 46 games (37 starts) and threw over 200 innings. Although his collegiate numbers were far from mind boggling, the righty was drafted again in 2014 by the Oakland A’s. This time, he was selected 101st overall; a slot that was satisfying enough to leave Mizzou and start his professional career.
En Route to the Majors
Like most first-year professionals, Orf immediately started off in Rookie-ball. In a short-seasoned league, he had limited time to prove himself to the Brewers’ organization. Early-on, Orf showcased his ability to get on-base by supporting a .312 AVG and .448 OBP in his first season. Each year after that, he continued to move up in the system. In his age 26 season, the former catcher reached AAA where he was used as a utility player. By 2017, he had logged at least 200 innings at 5 positions—2B, 3B, SS, LF, and RF. Of the 6-years spent in the minors, his best came in 2017 when he collected 52 extra-base hits and scored 103 runs.
Surprisingly, Orf was left off the organization’s 40-man roster entering the 2018 season; making it clear that they had no plans to call him up. Unwilling to give up, this season has been another eye-opener in AAA. Along with batting over .300 (again), Orf is showing off another skill-set—speed. In the past, his speed mainly contributed to his extra-base hits. However, this season he is using it more for stealing bags. Tied for third in the Pacific League, Orf has put together a 20 stolen base season—and it’s only at the midway point. Ahead of him in the Brewers’ depth chart, Tyler Saladino went on the DL with an ankle injury, and Orlando Arcia was off to a slow start. Although the club was first in the division (and still is), they searched for an internal solution for their middle-infield need. On July 2nd, the club made the decision to call their Colorado Springs affiliate and selected the contract of one, Mr. Nate Orf.
Following his junior season at Mizzou, Graves spent his first professional game in Rookie-ball. After throwing 1-inning for the Arizona Athletics, he was promoted to Oakland’s Low-A affiliate in Vermont; where he spent the remainder of the season. In his first 2 full seasons as a professional, Graves’ numbers were underwhelming to say the least. He went 19-18 with a 4.98 ERA and a K/9 (strikeouts per 9-innings) of 5.61. However, he did have an occasional 1-hitter in his days for the Stockton Ports. One of which came on July 27, 2016 against High Desert when he was perfect through 6-innings; until giving up a lead-off hit in the 7th. Pulling it together, Graves still managed to face the minimum in 8-innings of work, while only striking-out one batter. As history would have it, the A’s decided to leave him in Stockton heading into the 2017 season.
Determined to earn a spot on the AA roster, Graves pitched (nearly) lights-out that Spring—24.2 IP, 18 H, 7 ER, 3 BB, and 29 K. This performance early into the season ultimately led to a promotion where he earned 6 starts for the Rockhounds. His season would be cut short though when he injured the posterior tib tendon in his ankle; leaving the 3-year pro anxiously waiting for 2018. Back home in Missouri for the offseason, Graves received some news that would change his life forever. The Miami Marlins had selected the right-handed pitcher in the 2017 MLB Rule 5 Draft. For those that don’t know, if a player is picked in this draft, then the drafting team is required to keep said player on their 25-man roster for the entire season. When asked about the news, Graves said: “I was pretty shocked. I had a rough year with injuries, so I wasn’t expecting much.” Forgetting the tough break from a season ago, the newest Marlin prepared for the upcoming season in The Show.
A Dream Come True
The more recent debut came from Orf on July 2nd when he started at second-base for the Milwaukee Brewers. For his first game, Manager Craig Counsel slotted Orf 6th in the lineup—right behind Ryan Braun. Unsuccessful in his first 4 plate appearances, the 28-year-old was the winning run after he was plunked in the 10th inning. He was 90 feet away until forced out at home-plate due to a groundball fielded by the shortstop. The following day, Orf came off the bench and batted for the pitcher in the 5th inning. After working a 5-pitch walk, he collected his first stolen base; and eventually scored on an Eric Thames homerun. The next game, on July 4th, fireworks were ignited for another reason outside of the Independence Day celebrations. In a 2-2 count, Minnesota Twins’ All-Star, Jose Berrios, threw a curveball he’d soon regret. Orf connected with the pitch and watched it sail over the left-field wall for his first Major League hit (and homerun). He returned to the dugout but wasn’t there for long. To satisfy the fans’ curtain call, Jesus Aguilar and Manny Pina lifted Orf onto their shoulders and presented him to the fans of Milwaukee. A true “that’s what it’s all about” moment in baseball. Since his debut, the utilityman has been sent down and called back up. The lone hit remaining to be his July 4th homerun.
Unfortunately for the newest Marlin, Graves strained his oblique while facing the St. Louis Cardinals in Spring Training. Similar to his injury last season, this one was going to take some time to recover. On June 15th, the Miami Marlins activated Graves from the 60-day disabled list before their series in Baltimore. After the first two games without an appearance, only one day remained–Father’s Day. “I wasn’t restless,” Graves said, “being in that environment I was extremely appreciative to be there and grateful for my opportunity.” All that he could think about leading up to his debut was “to try and be ready for whenever they called my name.” With his family and friends eagerly awaiting in the stands, the 6’1 righty was finally called upon to record the final out of the weekend. On two pitches, Graves forced veteran power-hitter, Mark Trumbo, to groundout. Since his debut, Graves has compiled 7 1/3 innings over 4 appearances with 3 strikeouts and 3 walks. Although the numbers seem shoddy, there’s reason to remain optimistic. Back on his second appearance, Graves completed a full inning of work. Not only did he notch his first full inning, he also recorded his first strikeout—Nolan Arenado. An accomplishment not many can say they’ve done.
Here’s a look back at @BGraves05 first MLB strikeout against Nolan Arenado. Those cutters in sure messed him up. Great work BG!! @howell_baseball @MizzouBaseball https://t.co/Orpo0yota2
In his latest outing, Graves entered a tie game in extra-innings versus the Tampa Bay Rays. He cruised through the first three innings allowing two hits with an impressive strike-out on Jake Bauers; their 5th ranked prospect. Unfortunately, fatigue got the best of him during his fourth inning of work; leading to 7 baserunners, 5 runs, and the loss. Before this appearance, he had not thrown over 60 pitches in a game since last June for Midland (AA). When asked why Mattingly (Manager) didn’t relieve him in the 14th inning, Graves responded: “I was the last guy we had left in the bullpen. I was emptying the tank to help my team win.” The extra-innings game was the last time Graves has seen the mound in a game. Unknowingly, I asked Graves if there had been talks about moving him into the rotation at any point this season or in the future. “Right now, I’m trying to focus on getting better and to be ready for the next time my number gets called—the future opportunities will come” Graves answered. Until then, it’s the life of a reliever.
The Journey – Grateful to continue to do what I love! . God Bless Col 3:23
Thanks to everyone who had a hand in making my dream become a reality.. p.s. it was worth the wait!!! #thisismycrew
-Congratulations to Nate and Brett on your accomplishments. I hope you both go on to play long, healthy careers in the MLB.