GOODYEAR, Ariz. – Clinging to what minutes before seemed like a comfortable seven-run lead going into the bottom of the seventh inning, the situation suddenly became more than a little bit dicey for the Houston Banditos.
The setting was Wednesday’s national championship game at the 17u Perfect Game World Series and the two title contenders were the Texas-based Banditos and the defending champion EvoShield Canes out of Fredericksburg, Va. The fifth-seeded Banditos had spent 6 ½ innings building a 10-3 lead against the No. 3 Canes, only to watch as a relief pitcher walked the bases loaded with no one out.
It was a circumstance that bordered on the ridiculous, even though the Canes have shown time and again an uncanny ability to rally from rare deficits. The air temperature exceeded 110 degrees at Goodyear Ballpark and when a second Banditos relief pitcher – 2015 right-hander Hunter McClellan – was sent in to put out the fire he must have certainly been feeling the heat.
And just as certainly, he had swimming around in his brain a mantra head coach Robert DeLeon had repeated time and time again over the last five days.
“We live by a phrase on this team, ‘Never stop playing’ and I’ve said that phrase about a thousand times since I’ve been on Arizona soil,” DeLeon said Wednesday. “These boys understand what that means, and we never stopped playing.”
After forcing in a run by walking the first batter he faced, McClellan retired the next three and the Houston Banditos (7-1-0) had escaped the EvoShield Canes (6-2-0) by a 10-4 count to capture the 17u Perfect Game World Series national championship, a title the Canes had claimed a year earlier.
“I’m very happy and excited about this win, not only for me and not only for the program but for these boys,” DeLeon said. “They’ve played their hearts out – all these teams have in this tournament, but in particular this bunch here. They never stopped playing and when the bell rang, they answered.”
The PG national championship was the second at the 17u level the Banditos have won in the past three years, having also mined gold at the 2012 PG WWBA 17u National Championship.
It was the fourth straight 17u PG national championship game the Canes have been involved with over the last two years and this runner-up finish came on the heels of national championships won at the 2013 17u PG World Series, the 2013 PG WWBA World Championship and the 2014 PG WWBA 17u National Championship.
“I want to give a lot of credit to the EvoShield Canes,” DeLeon said. “They have a great program, a great organization, and we beat a very good pitcher in Russell. It really could have gone either way.”
DeLeon was speaking of Canes starter Ashe Russell, a 6-foot-4, 195-pound right-hander from Indianapolis who has been named to the East Team at the upcoming Perfect Game All-American Classic. The Banditos jumped on Russell with a single run in the top of the first and then tacked on five more in the top of the third to realistically put the game out of reach.
Those runs came courtesy of a two-run triple from Garrett Wolforth, RBI singles from Chris Scherff and PG All-American Kody Clemens and an RBI fielder’s choice ground-out from Michael Smith. Russell lasted only 2 1/3 innings and gave up six runs (five earned) on five hits with three strikeouts and four walks.
The Canes had actually taken a 3-1 lead with three runs in the bottom of the first thanks to run-scoring singles from PG All-American Ryan Johnson – a Texan – and Xavier LeGrant. The Canes wouldn’t score again until the seventh while the Banditos padded their lead with two in the fifth and two more in the seventh.
Banditos starter Alfredo Villarreal, a 2015 right-hander from Brownsville, Texas, was totally ineffective in that first inning, giving up the three runs (two earned) on three hits with a walk and a hit batsmen; he threw 23 pitches in the frame, 10 for strikes.
But he settled in and managed to give DeLeon and Banditos pitching coach Shane Reynolds – the former Houston Astros MLB All-Star right-hander who pitched 13 years in the major leagues (1992-2004) – six innings of seven-hit baseball with four strikeouts and one walk.
“A lot of credit goes to my pitching coach,” DeLeon said. “(Villarreal) did struggle early but Shane stuck with him. (Reynolds) knows what he can do; he knew that if he could establish his curveball early that he was going to be fine. I give all the credit to my pitching coaches who had all the faith in the world in Freddy.”
The final score realistically could have been more one-sided. The Banditos scored 10 runs on 12 hits but also left 14 runners on base in a seven inning game that lasted nearly 3 hours, including a 25-minute bottom of the seventh.
Joe Davis was 3-for-5 with a double, an RBI and run scored; Clemens went 2-for-3 with an RBI and a run; Wolforth was 2-for-4 with the triple and three RBI and Conner Capel was 2-for-4 with two runs to pace Houston.
Capel, a 2016 outfielder/left-hander, finished the tournament 14-for-24 (.583) with two doubles, a home run, six RBI, seven runs scored and a 1.421 OPS, and was named the Most Valuable Player.
“Our coach always says ‘never stop playing’ because (the Canes are) a great team and we can’t let up on them because they can come back any second; the game is never over until the last out,” Capel said. “We were grinding all the way and we kept hitting and making pitches and we just kept doing that all week.”
The Banditos hit .378 as a team and three prospects – Capel, Wolforth and Davis – hit .450 or better. Clemens hit just .292 but drove in a team-high 12 runs from his No. 2 spot in the batting order.
DeLeon and Reynolds used 12 pitchers over 48 2/3 innings at the five-day tournament and they were generally excellent, compiling a 1.73 team ERA with 59 strikeouts.
None was better than Christopher Paddack, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound right-hander from Cedar Park, Texas, who went 2-0 in two starts and allowed just one earned run in 10 innings (0.70 ERA) with 13 strikeouts and five walks. He was named the Most Valuable Pitcher.
“We just came together as a brotherhood … and we just kept playing. ‘Never stop playing’ is one of the things that Coach has been telling us,” said Paddack, who as a regular member of the Austin Banditos was playing his first tournament with the Houston Banditos. “We never stopped playing, we came together as a group and I’m really excited.”
The Canes, as always seems the case, were pretty darn good over the eight games they played in the desert, too. The compiled a .332 team batting average with four players hitting .409 and two above .500. 2015 outfielder Desmond Lindsay from Bradenton, Fla., turned in an MVP-worthy performance by going 11-for-21 (.524) with three doubles, four triples, five RBI, eight runs and a 1.663 OPS.
The star-studded pitching staff compiled a 2.10 ERA over 46 2/3 innings with 2015 left-hander Dylan Cyphert’s six- inning, five-hit, six-strikeout shutout standing out among his peers.
Sitting back home in Houston while the 17u PG World Series championship game was being played – and while he readied a team to take to Fort Myers, Fla., for the 16u Perfect Game World Series – Houston Banditos founder, president and erstwhile head coach Ray DeLeon was doing everything in his power to monitor what was happening over here in the desert.
“I’ve been on the phone every second of the day to Shane (Reynolds) and Robert (DeLeon) and Roger Clemens; I just couldn’t sit still,” Ray DeLeon said over the telephone. “They know that you have to go out there and just play baseball and you can’t worry about the heat and you can’t worry about anything else, you’ve just got to play good baseball and get hot at the right time; we did that, for sure.”
Ray, who as guided several different age-group Banditos teams to PG national championships, said many of the same things that his brother, Robert, said after the championship win, including an acknowledgement of talent of the Canes.
“Hats off to the EvoShield Canes,” Ray DeLeon echoed. “Jeff Petty is a class act; the whole organization is a class act. Everyone knows that’s the team that everyone is after.”
Robert DeLeon ran the Banditos down here the last five days and the kids love playing for him. And that mantra – “Never stop playing” – is something Ray DeLeon can appreciate.
“It’s the blue-collar mentality,” he said. “We don’t have all the No. 1 draft pick guys but we have a lot of misfits that get it done. We’re young; we’re very young. … We have a lot of young guys and a lot of young pitchers that are going to come back strong next year.”
The Banditos jumped on No. 4-seed Elite Squad Baseball (5-3-0) out of Pembroke Pines, Fla., for eight runs in the bottom of the second inning and strolled to a 9-1, five-inning win a semifinal game late Tuesday afternoon.
Tyler Pinkston delivered a two-run single, Joe Davis an RBI double, Conner Capel and RBI single and Chris Scherff a sac fly during the eight-run barrage; Ryan Reynolds added an RBI single in the fourth. 2015 right-hander Christopher Paddack pitched five effective and efficient innings, allowing one run on five hits with eight strikeouts and one walk.
“We knew if we won that game we were in the championship so I kept my composure, kept my confidence up,” Paddack said. “I saw everything, I felt everything and I trusted everything, and I just give all the credit to my defense and all my teammates and coaches.”
Lucius Fox Jr. had an RBI single in the top of the third to account for the Elite Squad’s only run.
The Banditos emerged from pool-play with a 3-1 record and kicked-off double-elimination pool-play on Monday with a 4-1 win over the Elite Squad. They followed that with an 11-7 win over No. 1-seed CBA Marucci (5-2-0) which launched them into Tuesday’s semifinal.
The Canes had to use every bit of winning magic they could muster in a thrilling 5-4 win over No. 2-seed NorCal Baseball (5-3-0) in a semifinal round game Tuesday afternoon.
Ryan Karstetter came through with a single with two-out in the bottom of the seventh to scored Logan Harvey and complete a four-run rally that saw the Canes come back from a 4-1 deficit. Harvey started the rally with a two-run single early in the frame and L.T. Tolbert added an RBI single a batter later.
NorCal jumped to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first inning and seemed to be cruising until the floor fell out from under it in the seventh. A NorCal win would have forced a second semifinal in the double-elimination format.
The Canes went 3-1 in pool-play and earned the playoff bracket’s No. 3 seed. They used playoff wins of 6-5 over No. 6 GBG Marucci (3-3-0) and 7-3 over the No. 7 Dallas Patriots (4-3-0) to reach the semifinals.
2014 17u Perfect Game World Series runner-up: EvoShield Canes
2014 17u Perfect Game World Series MVP: Conner Capel, Houston Banditos
2014 17u Perfect Game World Series MV-Pitcher: Christopher Paddack, Houston Banditos