MARIETTA, Ga. -- Coach and player are in total agreement: strong pitching and a rock solid defense behind the mound can carry a team a long way toward winning a Perfect Game tournament championship.
"I always expect our guys to play well and perform," Excel Blue Wave head coach Steve Gendron said Saturday evening. "You hope the pitchers are throwing strikes with good defense, and we've done that the past four or five games. Anytime you do that, you've got a chance."
One of Gendron's top players, highly regarded 2014 catcher Hayden White agreed: "I feel like our pitching is there and we're getting timely hits, and our defense is key right now," he said Saturday. "If we can keep the pitching there and with the timely hitting and the defense I think we'll be fine."
It seems like a simple enough formula for success. And the fact that the Excel Blue Wave averaged almost seven runs per game in their first five games at the 17u/18u Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational, it really should surprise no one that they've advanced to Monday's semifinal round at the East Cobb Baseball Complex.
Gendron used nine pitchers in the first five games and they combined for a 1.48 ERA after giving up seven earned runs on 26 hits in 33 innings, with 33 strikeouts and 12 walks. That's the "pitchers throwing strikes" that Gendron talked about frequently in a Saturday interview. And the seven earned runs are the only runs the team has allowed -- it has committed just one error in five games.
At a tournament dominated by teams from Georgia, the Oxford, Ala.-based Excel Blue Wave (5-0) will take on the North Alabama Vipers (4-1) from Huntsville in an all-Alabama semifinal at 9 a.m. at the complex. Monday's semifinal pairings in all three Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitationals -- 17u/18u, 16u and 14u/15u -- were set after first-round and quarterfinal playoff action on Saturday.
The Excel Blue Wave's run to the 17u/18u semifinals was impressive. After winning their pool by outscoring their three opponents by a combined 19-6, they whipped the hometown favorite East Cobb Astros 16u, 7-1, the first-round of the playoffs Saturday morning and then smacked the So Cal National Travel Team, 10-0, Saturday afternoon.
Righty Frazier Taylor (2012, Oxford, Ala.) tossed a seven inning, one-hit gem with nine strikeouts in the Blue Wave's 7-1 win over the East Cobb Astros 16u. Carson Meadows, an Army signee from Auburn, Ala. -- ranked the No. 5 left-handed pitching prospect in Alabama -- threw all five innings, allowing three hits while striking out five and walking three, in their 10-0 win over So Cal NTT. Those two games were not a leisurely Saturday afternoon stroll in the park.
"Anytime you're playing (deep) into the playoffs you're playing against pretty solid teams," Gendron said. "I'm just glad of the way our guys have competed the entire week, and anytime we're throwing strikes and playing defense it's going to give us a shot, so I'm excited about that."
Gendron continued that thought: "We've got a lot of young guys and now with the ability to play (Monday) our Wednesday starter is going to be able to come back. We've got a lot of strike-throwers; Meadows threw a great game today and (Monday) morning we'll get Josh Rich back on the mound and maybe Jack Pierce will come back over, so it's good right now."
The right-hander Rich (2014, Hoover, Ala.), a highly regarded shortstop prospect, threw six innings of four-hit, four-strikeout, shutout ball in the Blue Wave's 11-1 win over Team Elite 17u Grey in the tournament opener. The left-hander Pierce (2014, Pelham, Ala.), highly regarded as a pitcher, allowed two earned runs on six hits with six strikeouts in six innings in the Blue Wave's 4-2 win over the East Cobb Renegades 18u in the tournament's second game.
And then there is the hitting. The Excel Blue Wave batters combined to hit .342 in their five wins here over the last four days, led by White (2014, Prattville, Ala.), Ethan Simmons (2014, Chelsea, Ala.) and Dakota Beane (2014, Oxford, Ala.).
White is 7-for-17 (.412) with four doubles, four RBI, four runs scored, a .412 on-base percentage and .647 slugging percentage heading into Monday's semifinal. Simmons, who played in four games, is 6-for-8 (.750) with three doubles, four RBI and five runs, with on-base and slugging percentages of .750 and 1.125, respectively. Beans is 4-for-12 (.333) with a double and four RBI.
"We're just playing good ball right now and we're just going to keep doing that," said White, who played with the Excel 16u team last summer. "I feel like we're playing together and we're coming together as a team; coming together and starting to play good baseball."
Excel Baseball is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary and has been fielding teams for the past five years. This summer it is putting out two 15u teams, a 16u team and a 17u team, and the Excel Blue Jays competed in this week's 14u/15u PG-EC Invitational and also advanced into the playoffs.
"It's all about getting kids together when they're 15 years old, and then they grow and they mature and they learn how to play the game, and then they come out here when they're 17 and show what they can do," Gendron said.
The Excel Blue Wave program doesn't believe in "mixing and matching" or adding players once the summer season is under way, so this group will stay together through the PG WWBA and PG BCS Finals tournaments in the coming weeks.
"A lot of these guys have played together for two or three years; we've added a couple of new faces this past year," Gendron said. "We're a little different because we don't get a lot of time to practice -- with the rules in Alabama you can't get your team together (during the high school) season. We had one practice and then we went straight into playing games. But we're excited; this a good group of guys."
There is a consensus that the PG-EC Invitational tournaments provide a great avenue on which teams can travel into the PG WWBA and PG BCS Finals tournaments that begin right after next week's Perfect Game Junior National Showcase and PG National Showcase.
"This a great experience for the guys," Gendron said. "You get to see teams from all over and all kinds of different arms, and especially with the wood bat it's always a challenge for the high school kids. So it's good; this has been a great experience or them. We love coming over here because it's a good, competitive environment.
"Some of the guys have got a little chip on their shoulder and they just enjoy competing. This is a good atmosphere to compete in and the boys love it."
And count White -- a 5-foot-8, 165-pound catcher who PG ranks as "high follow" nationally in the class of 2014 and as the No. 15 overall prospect and No. 2 catching prospect in the state of Alabama -- among the Blue Wave players who are not one bit surprised to be playing on Monday.
"We always want to (be playing on the last day) but I felt pretty good about our team," White said. "We've been hitting and pitching -- pitching has really been the key and the hits have been timely so we just hope to keep that going."