Pacific Regional Preview
The Lakewood (Calif.) High School baseball program’s progression to what it hopes will be its first California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Southern Section championship since 2006 has been incremental.
Lakewood senior right-hander Shane Watson’s rise onto the national stage has seemed much more meteoric.
While well-known and respected within the Southern California high school baseball community the past couple of years, Watson’s stock and reputation rose quickly after he out-dueled Edison High School and Aflac/PG All-American left-hander Henry Owens in a CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoff quarterfinal last May.
That win sent Lakewood into the Division 1 semifinals, where it lost to eventual champion J.W. North, and finished the season at 29-5-1. That showing came on the heels of a 28-6 2010 campaign in which the Lancers lost in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs.
Watson, a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder with a fastball that has now reached 93 mph, feels that progression up the playoff ladder should logically result in a spot in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 championship game in early June.
“(Two years ago) we went to the quarterfinals and last year to the semifinals, so all the seniors are like, ‘We better make it to the finals and win the game this year,’” Watson said in a Feb. 22 telephone interview with Perfect Game. “It seems like we got one step up every year – quarterfinals, semifinals – and this year we’re planning on winning it all. I’m really confident about everyone on the team.”
The Lancers and veteran head coach Spud O’Neil – winners of nine Moore League championships since 2000, including the last two – open their season March 3 as the No. 15 team in the 2012 Perfect Game Preseason National High School Rankings. They are No. 3 in the 2012 PG Preseason Pacific Region (California and Hawaii) High School Rankings being released today.
Watson, a Southern Cal recruit, is a big reason preseason expectations are so high. He finished 10-2 with a 1.16 ERA last season, striking out 52 in 66 2/3 innings. None of those wins were bigger than the 10th when he bested eventual first-round compensation draft pick Owens from highly ranked Edison, 3-1, in the playoff quarterfinal played May 27.
Watson took a one-hitter into the sixth inning before settling for a seven inning, complete game four-hitter, and stole the headlines from the previously unbeaten Owens. James Byers, who is Watson’s summer team coach for Yak Baseball (West), said the performance opened some eyes.
“When he shut down Edison like he did, it was kind of like, ‘Well, who is this guy?’” Byers said in a telephone conversation with PG. “I will say, to USC’s credit, they already knew about him. (Trojans’ head coach Frank) Cruz was already on him before that game, which is good for him.”
Watson’s stock had only begun to rise.
After his junior season was in the books, Watson played in three national summertime events: the PG WWBA 2012 Grads or 17u National Championship with Yak Baseball (West) in Marietta, Ga., in mid-June; the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., in early August; and at the Perfect Game/EvoShield National Championship (Upper class) with the So Cal Outlaws in Phoenix in late October.
While Watson’s talents were widely recognized and reported upon in Southern California, the WWBA 17u National Championship served as his East Coast and national coming out party.
He started Yak’s opener at the prestigious 218-team tournament against heavy favorite Marucci Elite, and dazzled with a four-hit, nine-strikeout, and 100-pitch complete game performance in an 8-3 Yak Baseball victory. His fastball reached 91 mph during the outing.
“It was fun, and it was a whole different atmosphere being away from home,” Watson said of the WWBA experience. “It was hot and it was muggy and I was facing Marucci Elite, but I felt like I was pretty good that game. It felt different facing the (17) D-I commits on that team … but it was neat to see myself compete and give my team a chance to win.”
Watson pitched for the star-studded Milwaukee Brewers squad at the 2011 Area Code Games.
Nine top prospects on the Brewers’ Area Code roster were also members of the West Team at the 2011 Perfect Game All-American Classic presented by Rawlings, including pitchers Max Fried, Lucas Giolito, Cody Poteet and Hunter Virant.
Other PG All-Americans who were teammates of Watson’s in Long Beach were third basemen Tanner Rahier, Rio Ruiz and Trey Williams; first baseman Corey Oswalt and catcher C.J. Saylor.
Perfect Game director of scouting David Rawnsley noted that Watson’s velocity had improved from 85-88 with his fastball and 71 with his curveball at the WWBA 17u National Championship to 90-93 with his fastball and 77 with his curve in his first inning of work at the Area Codes.
“Watson has some effort in his release but the ball comes out of his hand easy and he has great leverage from his 6-4, 200 (pound) build and over the top release point,” Rawnsley reported.
One of Watson’s teammates at Lakewood is 2013 shortstop John Paul (J.P.) Crawford, a standout athlete who is ranked 26th nationally in his class and who, like Watson, has committed to USC. Crawford was also a teammate of Watson’s at all three of the summer events he attended.
“We played T-ball together and all the way up until now we’ve been on the same teams,” Watson said. “He’s more than a teammate – he’s more like a brother to me. I’m going to miss him.”
Of course there is still the chance – albeit a small one considering their high draft profiles – Watson and Crawford could end up playing together again one day at Southern Cal. The Trojans are certainly holding out hope one or both will make it to campus.
“He is one of the top power-arms in the state of California with an outstanding curveball. We expect great things from Shane,” USC recruiting coordinator Dan Hubbs said in a news release after Watson signed his letter-of-intent in November.
Yak Baseball’s Byers coached Watson and Crawford last summer and came away impressed.
“Coach O’Neil, he’s doing a great job,” Byers said of the longtime Lakewood coach. “J.P. and Shane, they might be the two most competitive people I’ve ever been around. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence or if that’s something they’re doing at Lakewood but those guys, they just want to beat you.
“They don’t care if they’re playing tiddlywinks or baseball, they want to win, they’re competitive, they’ve got a fire (and) they come to play every day.”
Perfect Game ranks Watson as the 88th overall top prospect in June’s draft and No. 8 among high school players from the Pacific Region. A lot of the pre-draft speculation has Watson slated as a late first round, first round supplemental or second round selection, but, of course, that’s just speculation.
“Whatever happens, happens and we’ll see how it plays out, and at the time if I’ve offered enough money, then I’ll take that,” Watson said. “I definitely want to go play baseball, and it’s been my dream since I was little to play Major League Baseball. It’s not really a dream; it’s more of a goal. It’s a goal I’m going to try to achieve rather than something I just wish I could do.”
A final high school season will start and finish before any future plans need to be considered. Watson said he’s “never felt better in my life” and is “working out harder than I’ve ever worked out” as the season approaches. He has an appreciation for playing at Lakewood, with all its tradition of winning and a long and rich history.
Watson’s older brother, Scott Watson, is a 2005 graduate of nearby Mayfair High School, and is now a 6-5, 215-pound, 25-year-old right-hander with the Windy City Thunderbolts in the independent Frontier League. He pitched last season for the Calgary Vipers in the independent North America League.
“I was a Mayfair guy my whole life; my brother went to Mayfair,” Watson said. “I always kind of looked up to Lakewood as the big brother to Mayfair and I was kind of in awe watching them play.”
Watson has turned that awe into dogged determination. The improvements he’s made in the last year are out there for all to see.
“He’s put in some work – in the weight room, getting after it, working on his mechanics,” Byers said. “He needs to get polished and he needs a little more work, but skill-wise he’s the highest guy I’ve seen out there who hasn’t reached his potential yet.”
Judging by what Watson hopes to achieve this year, he plans on reaching that potential sooner rather than later.
“My team goals are winning the Moore League and the CIF (championship),” he said. “My personal goals are to (finish with) an ERA under 1, with two no-hitters and a perfect game. I just try to take it all in and be grateful for what I have because there are people who don’t ever get to play baseball.”