Gonzaga pitcher Bradley Mullan has long since moved on, but he still thinks about the day he got cut from the team.
It feels like a million years ago, he said, that his collegiate career took a fork in the road that in the moment felt an awful lot like a dead end – the first time in 15 years of playing baseball that he was told his services weren’t essential to his team’s success.
But if it feels like that long ago, it’s for a reason. After more than a year spent away from the team, Mullan has become one of the Zags’ most-used arms in a bullpen that continues to deepen, and now his coaches can’t imagine this season without him.
With 11 appearances on the mound and the third-most innings pitched (26) behind a pair of legitimate pro prospects in Alek Jacob and Gabriel Hughes, the 6-foot-2 southpaw has racked up 27 strikeouts, has four starts and sports a 2-1 win-loss record.
He has emerged as a consistent power lefty amidst adversity and injury in GU’s staff that complicated the first month of the season.
“We never really knew what to expect with him, but he’s proved himself as someone we can count on,” said Jacob, a 2021 preseason All-West Coast Conference selection who’s been a starter for GU since he was a freshman. “He can really make a difference – and he’s really versatile, too. You know that he’s gonna go out there and battle for you.”
Just less than a month ago, he kept then-No. 11 TCU’s batters at bay after they had put up seven runs on two other pitchers, holding them to one run on three hits to close out the Zags’ biggest win of the season so far. Since then, he’s been on a tear, pairing a fastball in the lower 90s with a change-up that’s become more commanding in conference play.
Mullan admits those heights didn’t feel remotely possible in the coaches’ office in October 2019.
After trying out two weeks prior to the start of fall ball and making the initial cut as a freshman, Mullan’s pitching in his first real competition with college batters was – in his own words – “awful.”
For an 18-year-old going from facing an occasional Division I batter to facing them every at-bat, the physical gap felt insurmountable.
“I was like 83 (mph), 84, topped at 86 once,” he said. “I just wasn’t doing anything right … there’s no other way to put it.”
When the time came around for roster cuts, Mullan, at the bottom of the depth chart, was told that his best option was a “grayshirt” – redshirting without the benefits of being on the team.
He could try again the following year if he wanted to, and the coaches were supportive of that, setting him up with an opportunity to prove himself in summer ball. But nothing was a guarantee.
“I was a mess,” Mullan said. “I thought, ‘Well, could I even play here?’ Or that I might have to go to a junior college … I didn’t think I could have stayed just because I pitched so bad.”
The sole bright side was evidence in recent program history that suggested a year off could work in his favor. Former Zags Daniel Bies and Jeff Bohling both grayshirted, came back the next year and went on to be selected in the MLB draft, with Bohling becoming WCC Player of the Year in 2016.
That hasn’t been the path for everyone who’s been cut, Zags pitching coach Brandon Harmon pointed out, but it’s a path that’s been established.
“One hundred percent of the credit is on those individuals, ” Harmon said. “There’s nothing glamorous about a grayshirt … it takes a lot of work in the background from those guys, but it doesn’t get a lot of instant praise and it’s a lot of lonely work, too.”
But Mullan stayed, working out and throwing by himself in Spokane as a full-time student with the end goal unchanged.
“I think that’s one thing about Bradley. He’ll be the first to tell you – he has it as a chip on his shoulder,” Harmon said. “And for some guys, getting that chip on their shoulders allows them to take one, two, three steps forward and put themselves in a really good position.”
In the wake of a pandemic-stunted season, many players had nowhere to compete last summer. Luckily for Mullan, the Expedition League’s Western Nebraska Pioneers were still a go. Firmly in “the middle of nowhere,” Mullan relished a chance to spend summer solely focused on baseball, and the competition proved to be the validation he needed.
In eight appearances, he finished up with a 1.50 earned-run average against high-level college competition, allowing hits in only two games. Fall ball brought more of the same success, and by two weeks in, his place as a viable front-end option was secure.
“That success breeds confidence,” Harmon said. “And he was able to bring that confidence into the fall. I mean, statistically, he was probably our best guy this fall.”
With GU’s pitching lineup in flux week to week, Mullan said he doesn’t concern himself with the niceties of whether he starts or comes out of the pen. A year after having to pack up his things and clear out his locker, he’s earned a place and his coaches’ trust.
Maybe more important, he bet on himself when he was the only one who could – and he’s just beginning to cash in.
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