GOODYEAR, Ariz. – Iowa Select expected to come down to the desert this weekend and possibly make some noise at the Perfect Game/EvoShield National Championship (Upperclass) PG national championship event. The noisemaker, most presumed, would be the high-profile Iowa Select Black squad with its eight NCAA Division I commits.
In the words of ESPN College Game Day talking head Lee Corso, “Not so fast.” When the 20-team PG/EvoShield Upperclass playoffs began Sunday morning at the Goodyear Ballpark Complex, Iowa Select was indeed represented, but it was by the much lower profile Iowa Select Red.
The predominantly 2014 prospects on the Iowa Select Red roster – all from Iowa high schools, all products of the Perfect Game Iowa Fall League and none with college commitments – went head-to-head with some of the best travel ball teams from Southern California and managed to win its pool championship. The Reds finished 2-1 in pool-play and earned the playoffs’ No. 17 seed.
“For us, it’s been kind of the same thing all year; the guys play hard and compete all the way to the end,” Iowa Select Red coach Nick Klein said before his squad played the nationally recognized San Diego Show in one of four play-in games to the round of 16. “We’re just kind of scrappy and we somehow find ways to win games. It’s weird to watch sometimes but it just happens for us.”
The Show, an organization that has won numerous Perfect Game national championships over the last decade, was just the latest powerhouse program the Reds had to face. They played a pair of games on Friday, losing to Anaheim, Calif.-based Hard 9 and standout shortstop Tristan Hildebrandt, 4-1, in the opener. They then picked up a 4-2 win over the Watsonville (Calif.) Aggies, a team that features 2015 No. 65-ranked Tyler Williams.
The over-the-top moment came on Saturday, however, when Iowa Select Red and left-hander Benjamin Nelson (2014, Urbandale, Iowa) shutout the traditionally strong San Gabriel Valley (SGV) Arsenal, 6-0, to clinch their pool championship. Nelson allowed four hits over seven shutout innings, striking out 12 and walking three.
“All of our (pitchers) do a nice job of competing,” Klein said. “They don’t put guys on and get themselves into trouble. They just throw strikes, keep balls down and mix pitches up enough that you’ll see other teams not really adjusting much and taking big swings. We just kind of counter their big swings with good pitches and let them get themselves out.”
Five Iowa Select Red pitchers combined to throw 21 innings in pool-play, and allowed four earned runs (1.33 ERA) on 17 hits while striking out 22 and walking eight. Right-hander Chris Balthazor (2014, Cedar Falls, Iowa) was among the most productive, allowing two earned runs over five innings (1.40 ERA) on seven hits with four strikeouts and one walk.
“Our pitching has been great and we’ve played some great defense,” Balthazor said Sunday. “(On Saturday) we got our runners in that were in scoring position and that helped out a lot, and we threw some great games. Benny Nelson had a great game (Saturday) on the mound with a complete game shutout; he did great.”
Iowa Select Red’s offense was almost non-existent during pool-play, which made its advancement to the playoffs all the more improbable. The Reds hit just .158 (12-for-76) as a team but were opportunistic enough to score 11 runs. Walker Beard (2014, Washington, Iowa) was 3-for-7 (.429) with a triple, two RBI and two runs scored.
All of the players on both Iowa Select teams that were here are currently playing in the PG Iowa Fall League. Perfect Game league director Steve James works with other Iowa coaches to hand-pick the Select teams and most of the higher profile guys wind up on the Iowa Select Black roster. Klein coaches at Cedar Falls (Iowa) High School and in the PG Fall League and PG Spring Wood Bat League, while also helping work various PG showcase events.
“A lot of the guys on this team come from recommendations from other coaches in the state, and then we have our tryouts for the fall league and we pick up some guys who stand out there,” he said. “It’s all recommendations and tryouts.”
There doesn’t seem to be any coach or prospect from anywhere in the country involved with this event that isn’t thrilled with having been given the opportunity to be here. But while a PG national championship tournament environment might be old hat to some, it is all fresh and new to the guys on Iowa Select Red.
Ten alumni of the Iowa Fall League have reached the big leagues – Jeremy Hellickson, Joel Hanrahan and Ryan Sweeney among them – but the high school fields in Iowa aren’t exactly crawling with future MLB talent. This can be a bit of an eye-opener for the Iowa kids.
“Playing the best competition is always the most fun,” Balthazor said. “Every kid dreams about playing against teams like these ... and getting to play against some of the top players (in the country) is a great experience.”
Coach Klein agreed:
“A lot of these guys never get the chance to see talent like this from outside (of Iowa). For them to be able to get exposed to it just opens their eyes as to what kind of level the next level is going to be like for them. It’s awesome for them to get to see that and have to play up to it.
“I don’t think a lot of the kids really knew what to expect because they hadn’t done this kind of thing before, but they’re having a blast,” he continued. “Getting to win a couple of games down here and surprise some people has just been awesome to watch.”
No prospect on this Reds’ roster has made a college commitment, but Klein thinks that will change in due time. He feels strongly that all of his pitchers have the talent to play at some level collegiately, which made this trip all the more of a necessity.
“This is huge for them because they just haven’t gotten that exposure because they’re not that high profile yet,” Klein said. “They’ve got something to bring to the table, so hopefully now schools will see that they do have something to offer and it gives them that chance to just put it out there.”
When Klein learned Saturday night that the San Diego Show would be Select Red’s first-round playoff opponent, he welcomed the challenge.
“That’s who we want to play,” he said Sunday. “We don’t want to come down here and see teams that aren’t very good – we can do that back home. We want to come down and see draft picks and people like that, and see what happens.”
What happened wasn’t all that good from a Select Red perspective. The Iowans again failed to generate any offense in the 5-0 loss, although Trent Roose (2014, Pella, Iowa) was 2-for-2 and Jay Hrdlicka (2014, West Des Moines, Iowa) doubled.
Right-hander Blake Hartgens (2015, Cedar Rapids, Iowa) kept the string of strong starting pitching in tack, working five innings without giving up an earned run on two hits with three strikeouts and a walk. Over 27 innings, Iowa Select Red finished with a team ERA of 1.30.
More importantly, the boys from Iowa learned how to become a team.
“Just hanging out at the hotel and going out for dinner … it’s been awesome getting to know these guys. They’re just a bunch of cool kids,” Balthazor said. “This has been an experience of a lifetime. Coming down to Phoenix here, it’s been awesome, playing on some great fields and getting some wins – it’s a trip of the lifetime.”