FORT MYERS, Fla. – Keeping with Elite Squad Slugger head coach Scott Morrison’s way of thinking, there was absolutely no reason to be alarmed when his team lost its tournament-opener last Friday at the 16u Perfect Game BCS Finals national championship. It’s almost as if he couldn’t expect anything else.
“We lost a tough game the first game out here and that’s kind of been our M.O. all summer; I think this is our fourth tournament and I think we’ve lost the first game in every tournament,” Morrison told Perfect Game during a nearly 2 ½ hour rain delay late Monday afternoon at the Player Development 5-Plex.
“We have a great group of guys that can take that adversity and they always seem to bounce back really well,” he said. “We played some really good teams in the two pool-play rounds and (my players) have really shown what they can do. I’m really excited and I’m really happy with the way these guys have played; they’ve played their butts off.”
If, indeed, this collection of young prospects almost exclusively from the class of 2016 (there is one 2017 listed on the 19-man roster) and almost exclusively from Southeast Florida will be playing in Tuesday morning’s second round of the 16u PG BCS Finals playoffs without rear-ends to fill their pants, it seems like a minor sacrifice.
Elite Squad Slugger did just enough along the way to win its last five pool-play games and earn the No. 9 seed in the 32-team playoffs. It then fought back from a four-run deficit to beat the No. 25-seeded South Tampa Prospects, 11-4, in that rain-delayed first-round playoff game.
The Sluggers (6-1-0) will face No. 9-seed MBA Pride Elite (6-1-0) in a second-round game Tuesday at 8 a.m. at the JetBlue Park Player Development Complex. It’s a perfect matchup between fundamentally sound playoff teams lacking top-500 prospects but that cannot be discounted as legitimate title contenders.
“This is just a bunch of great guys that pick each other up,” Morrison said of his Slugger team. “We don’t have the guys with 90-plus arms; we don’t have the guys out here that scouts are drooling over. We’re a middle of the road team that is playing really good, sound, fundamental team baseball.
“We’ve had a lot of sac bunts, squeeze plays, sacrifice flies and a lot of really strong pitching performances by our entire staff.”
This team is a baseball purists’ dream come true.
“We try to get these guys to play a little bit better every day,” Morrison said. “We’re not a home run hitting team so we have to do the little things like executing hit-and-runs. I think it allows these guys to get a better understanding of how the game is supposed to be played and they’re executing it right now on all levels.”
The South Tampa Prospects came within a whisker of winning its pool championship and earning an automatic berth – and top-22 seed – into the playoffs after finishing its first five pool-play game with a 4-1 record.
But the Prospects were forced to settle for a 0-0 tie with the Beyel Brothers Bulldogs in their final pool-play game of the tournament and the Bulldogs were awarded the automatic berth based on the “runs scored against” tie-breaker criteria. The Prospects got into the playoffs with one of the 10 playoff berths.
“The kids are playing well and these kids really can play,” South Tampa Prospects head coach Kevin McCray said. “Baseball hasn’t changed in 150 years, so if you pitch, change speeds, make your plays and have quality at-bats you’re going to be in every game with a chance to win it.
“You’re going to play some teams that probably have a little more talent and their pitcher throws harder, but you have to make your plays and you have to execute when you get the chance; if you do those things you win a lot of games.”
McCray is the head coach at Tampa Robinson High School, and the South Tampa Prospects’ roster is filled about half-and-half with players from his Robinson HS program and the program at neighboring Tampa Jesuit High School. One other top guy, 2015 right-hander/utility Casey Keller, goes to school at Tampa Berkley Prep School.
“All of these kids live within five miles of each other,” McCray said, before offering a quick wise-crack. “There’s no problem with communication because I just steal Jesuit’s signs when I take their players in the summer.”
It is probably a good thing that Elite Squad Slugger does the little things well because, statistically at least, it lacks for the big, headline grabbing things. The Sluggers scored 42 runs in their seven games leading into Tuesday while hitting .289 as a team.
2016 outfielder/left-hander Alex Carballo led the way at 7-for-15 (.467) with a double, two RBI and 10 runs scored; 2016 catcher Anthony Mulrine was 6-for-16 (.375) with a double, seven RBI and three runs; 2016 Tyler Waters was 7-for-19 (.368) with a double, a home run, six RBI and two runs.
Morrison used eight pitchers in the first seven games and they combined for a 1.67 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 42 innings. 2016 left-hander Jose Hildago was especially solid, working nine innings in two appearances without allowing an earned run on nine hits while striking out 10 with three walks.
The Elite Squad organization had three entries in the 16u PG BCS Finals and all three – Elite Squad Slugger, Elite Squad Prime and Elite Squad TPX – advanced to the playoffs. The Prime at 6-0 and Slugger at 5-1 after pool-play were shoe-ins, but even TPX snuck in after a 0-3 start to the tournament – it won two of its last three games and claimed a pool championship on a head-to-head tie-breaker.
The Prime is one of five teams from the 88-team field that is playing in Tuesday’s second round of the playoffs with a 7-0-0 record. The others are 643 DP Cougars Sterling; Team Demarini Puerto Rico; Team Elite Prime and Marucci Elite Houston Red.
Morrison, who played in one Perfect Game tournament in 2006, played collegiately at Farleigh Dickenson University in New Jersey and is now the head coach at Boca Raton (Fla.) High School, is thrilled to be part of the Elite Squad organization, which is overseen by Richie Palmer.
“If I ever have a son I wouldn’t want him to play for any other organization,” Morrison said. “Richie Palmer does a fantastic job of managing all these different teams and getting the right guys with the right coaching to put a quality product out on the field.
“All 60 or 70 guys in our 16-and-under organization, we just play at a real high level and we do the little things right, and we feel like we teach the game correctly and our guys play the game the right way.”
He also admitted to some challenges working with his teenage players, even while acknowledging that this is an especially tight-knit group with a strong chemistry.
“Those 8 a.m. games are not easy; it’s not easy to get a bunch of 16-year-olds up and ready to play,” he said through a laugh. “It takes a lot of piecing together the pitching and keeping low pitch counts with the guys you use early in the tournament so you can get them back out there later in the tournament.”
Even as the South Tampa Prospects bowed out of the tournament Monday night, Coach McCray spoke of no regrets.
“They’re loving it; they’re having a blast,” he said. “They were really hoping to advance (to the playoffs), and when you tie like we did and it goes to the runs allowed (criteria), that stuff gets a little sticky, but you’ve got to cut it off somewhere, right?”