Healdsburg Prune Packers pitcher wows MLB team scouts

On July 15 at Healdsburg’s Rec Park, Brandon Poulson threw his first pitch and the dozen Major League Baseball scouts in the stands looked at their radar guns. Then they looked at each other, peeking over each other’s shoulders to see the other electronic numbers. Then they looked back at their radar guns. Nah, they all assumed. Must be a glitch. A sun spot probably. Or a cell phone with its ringer on loud. Something caused it. It happens.

But the radar read-out was the same for all of them: 96 miles an hour.

“And it was only a warm-up pitch,” said Elliott Strankman of the Minnesota Twins. “I’ve never seen a 96 warmup pitch.”

The scouts now were leaning forward, intrigued. Poulson certainly looked the part of a power pitcher. He’s 6-foot-7, 230 pounds of lean meat, his body shape perfectly proportioned to deliver the five-ounce product - big shoulders, narrow hips, long arms and legs, every inch a pitching catapult.

But it was going to take more than one pitch for the scouts to think Poulson was the real deal. If Poulson was such a hot prospect, why wasn’t he drafted? Why was he pitching for the Healdsburg Prune Packers, a developmental team for aspiring high school and college players? Poulson didn’t even make Piner’s baseball team as a freshman. He became so discouraged Poulson stayed away from the game for most of the three years after his 2008 high school graduation. At 24, Poulson was pitching for Academy of Art University in San Francisco. The Urban Knights have yet to make it to the College World Series.

The hitters for the Nevada Big Horns stepped in, swung and soon stepped out. Poulson’s fastball hit 99 miles an hour; four times he did that on Strankman’s gun. The ball was over the plate, not bouncing off screens or catcher’s shin guards.

Poulson’s fastball never dipped below 96. The scouts went silent. They chase rumors all the time. Their radar guns are their weapons, ready to bring down rumors. They are a skeptical lot. To keep their jobs they need to be.

When Poulson finished that inning July 15, the scouts lined up, one behind the other, each one asking the same question, as Poulson remembers.

“What is going to take for you to sign with us?”

The Yankees, said Poulson, started with a $50,000 bid, increasing it to $100,000. The Phillies started at $70,000, went to $110,000, finally to $150,000. The A’s, Poulson said, went to $105,000, the Giants to $138,000. The Twins came in at $225,000. The Braves said they couldn’t beat $225,000.

Poulson said he heard the Red Sox, Astros, Nationals, Marlins and Cardinals wanted to schedule a tryout. The day after the Healdsburg performance the Twins called Poulson and said they could go up to $250,000. Poulson told Minnesota he felt he could get a $350,000-plus offer if he wanted to extend the bidding war.

“The Twins told me I had 30 minutes to make up my mind,” Poulson said.

There was one problem: Poulson was sitting in a patient’s chair at the office of Santa Rosa dentist Dr. Vicente Chavez. He was about to have a tooth extracted. The dentist and his assistants were ready to go to work. Poulson put up his hand as a stop sign. Wait, please. He could tell they weren’t pleased.

“I knew they thought I was a jerk,” he said.

Poulson called back the Twins and accepted the offer. He then told Dr. Chavez and his staff what happened. He was immediately forgiven. The doctor and his staff should have been there the day before in Healdsburg. They would have applauded then as well.

“It was the easiest 99 I have ever seen,” Strankman said. “To tell you the truth I was blown away. Brandon has the best pure arm strength I’ve ever seen. It was unbelievable actually.”

“Unbelievable” is a word used all too often in sports, to the point nothing is unbelievable anymore in the industry.

Except for how Brandon Poulson came to be a $250,000 prize.

His journey to this point is like this weird connect-the-dots puzzle that has no straight lines, no logical points that follow each other, nothing that makes a lick of sense. . . until last December. That’s when Poulson bumped into Riley Sullivan, one of the owners of the Prune Packers, at a Santa Rosa deli.

“That’s the day that changed everything for me,” Poulson said. He had pitched for the Prune Packers the previous summer but only sparingly. He missed more than two-thirds of the season working for his dad’s excavation business.

“Riley had lost my contact information, plus he thought I had quit baseball,” Poulson said. “And the players on the 2014 Prune Packers would be invitation only.”

But Brandon, Riley said, you have to come out. I got this manager, Joey Gomes, and their pitching coach, Caleb Balbuena, who really know their stuff. They can help you. Specifically they can help you find home plate.

You see, Poulson always had the cannon. When he played linebacker for SRJC for two years, he’d goof around throw the football 70 yards. “My teammates said I had a Major League arm and I should play baseball,” Poulson said. He nodded politely and ignored the entreaties. He couldn’t find home plate when he threw the ball. He’d strike out three and walk four in an inning. He became so depressed by his lack of control he quit the game for his two SRJC football years and played unenthusiastically in the Wine Country Baseball league and the Prune Packers.

And then along came Gomes and Balbuena. The pair had become friends when they played independent baseball in the American Association. Balbuena is a biomechanics specialist. He took one look at Poulson’s delivery.

“He was like a newborn fawn learning how to walk,” Balbuena said. “That, and like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, stiff, awkward.”

When Poulson threw the ball, it was like he was falling out of closet, all the moving parts going in the wrong direction.

“You want to know it all?” Poulson said. “My head was moving all over the place. My weight was coming forward too early.

I was landing on the inside of my foot. My leg collapsed on landing. I was throwing the ball too early. I had no idea where it was going. I owe everything to Joey and Caleb.”

Balbuena and Gomes recognized the athlete inside all that gawkiness. Poulson ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at SRJC. He ran a 6.58 second 60-yard dash while at Academy of Art.

“And it was in his SOCKS,” Strankman said. “People are still talking about that run.”

Poulson doesn’t drink, smoke, party or even watch television.

He is addicted to being healthy.

He can bench 275 pounds 25 times. He had all the equipment. He just had to learn how to move it fluidly in the same direction.

“I gained three miles an hour to 97 when I created more separation between my hips and shoulder,” Poulson said.

Meaning, Poulson turned his shoulder away from his hips moving forward, creating more torque and thus more speed.

“In six months Brandon went from a high school pitcher to a professional pitcher,” Balbuena said.

His ascension might be considered a dream, an emergence from obscurity and oblivion to a story that ESPN, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, among others, are pursuing vigorously.

“Yes, this would be a dream,” said Gomes, the former Casa Grande star, “if you were sleeping. But we told Brandon early on he had the skills. He has a Major League arm. This is what pitchers look like at the Triple A or Major League level.

“His success would all depend if he was willing to learn. And he did. That’s what surprises me. Not that he can throw like this but that he listened, paid attention, and worked hard. This is all on him. His arm is ready for the big leagues. All he has to do is learn a few skills, like holding runners on better and decreasing his time on delivering the ball to home plate.”

Poulson flew to Minnesota last week to be wined and dined by management, undergoing physical exams, and taking drug and alcohol tests. Tuesday Poulson was told he passed them all. Wednesday he was to fly to the Twins’ Rookie League team in Elizabethton, Tennessee. He will sign his contract . . . and then find out if he can throw even harder.

“I think I can go another two-three miles an hour,” Poulson said.

To break a 100 miles an hour, then join the very fastest of the fastest in the big leagues, to do that when your last amateur team was the Academy of Art University for gosh sakes, it would take the imagination of Leonardo Da Vinci to put Brandon Poulson where he is now.

“It was like a movie, that night in Healdsburg,” Strankman said.

And who would play Brandon Poulson in this movie? It would have to be Brandon Poulson himself. Have to.

No actor could pull this off. Heck, probably no actor would even want to take the job.

Let’s be real here: Brandon Poulson makes “The Field Of Dreams” look like a documentary.

To contact Bob Padecky email him at

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