FORT MYERS, Fla. – Highly regarded and even more highly respected 2014 catcher and all-around utility man prospect Brent Diaz has made a name for himself toiling tirelessly on the diamonds of South Florida over the past couple of years.
Diaz, a senior at Gullivers Schools who calls Miami home, is a top-500 ranked national prospect in the class of 2014 and No. 128 overall in the state of Florida. He carries a 3.94 grade-point average, speaks with an unbridled sense of enthusiasm in his voice, and is thrilled with the experiences he was given the opportunity to enjoy this summer.
This Labor Day Holiday Weekend finds Diaz on the other side of the Florida Peninsula, about 140 miles west of his Miami home, playing for an unfamiliar team at the PG WWBA 18u Labor Day Classic.
On Saturday and Sunday, on the fields of Fort Myers in Southwest Florida, Diaz was one of many promising young prospects wearing the uniform of the New Orleans-based Nola Monsters, a squad of otherwise all-Louisiana residents looking for their second straight trip to the championship game at the PG WWBA 18u Labor Day Classic.
“This is the first time I’m getting to meet them and they’re a great bunch of guys,” Diaz said late Sunday morning from Terry Park, speaking of his Nola Monsters teammates. “They’re just all trying to play baseball and carry out the same dream that we’re all trying to do.”
But, come on, Brent. You’ve been around; you play in South Florida. Can these boys from the bayou really play a little bit?
“Oh yeah, they can play a little bit,” Diaz said, his wide smile completely taking over his face. “Our record shows that we’re (3-0) … so we’re playing well. Hopefully we can keep that going on into the playoffs.”
The Nola Monsters, with Diaz on board and wielding a big stick, won their first two pool-play games at the 18u Labor Day Classic against Bullets Baseball and the Top American Prospects on Saturday by a combined score of 16-1.
They knocked off Xtreme Baseball 17u, 5-0, in their pool-play finale Sunday afternoon and were leading the Florida Express, 5-2, after 3 ½ innings in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs before that game was suspended until Monday morning due to rain.
Rain. Son-of-a-gun. When the Nola Monsters arrived at this same event a year ago this weekend, Nola Baseball founder and head coach Todd Buster, his coaching staff and every player on the roster were reeling from the effects of Hurricane Isaac which had pounded New Orleans and the surrounding coastal regions just weeks previously. The Monsters advanced to the title game, nevertheless.
“Last year when we came here we were fighting 10 feet of water back home,” Buster said Sunday. “The big key for us coming into this year is that we’ve been in the stadium and finishing second last year kind of gave us a lot of momentum.”
Nola Baseball has been one of the fastest growing organizations in the country over the last 12 months. Buster said Nola (short for New Orleans, La.) placed 56 prospects from the 2013 high school graduating class into colleges and each ensuing class promises to surpass that number. The 18u team here this weekend (there is also a Nola Baseball 16u team) features 16 high school seniors (class of 2014) and two juniors (2015).
“Now we’ve got a really good nucleus of new players that all have seen this (high level) of baseball,” Buster said. “They all have visited Perfect Game (events) as we went to Jupiter last year and we’ve done three PG other events. Once they get to this stage I’m expecting every single guy to be competitive and not be a drop-off from any other guy.”
None of the 2014s on this weekend’s Nola Monsters’ roster have committed to a college yet, and that includes Diaz. The talent is certainly there, especially, perhaps, within the pitching staff. Through 23 innings at this event – including the three innings pitched in the yet-to-be-completed quarterfinal game – seven Nola pitchers had allowed three runs, none of them earned, on 13 hits while striking out 20 and walking six.
Shortstop/outfielder Tyler St Phillip (2014, Mandeville, La.) is 4-for-8 (.500) with two doubles, six runs scored and a 1.306 on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) percentage; first baseman/outfielder Kyle Schimpf (2015, Covington, La.) is 5-for-10 (.500) with a double, five RBI, four runs and a 1.100 OPS.
“This is my first time playing with Nola and this is my first time coming over to here to play, so it’s been fun,” said Schimpf, the team’s youngest member at 16. “I knew we were going to be a pretty decent ballclub but I didn’t know we were going to be as good we (are); it’s been a good ride so far. Hopefully we can keep on going and get to the championship again this year.
“It’s been good, actually, playing with the older guys,” he said. “They teach me a lot and I try to learn from them as much as I can. I want to show what I can do, do my best and just have fun with it.”
There is certainly no denying what Diaz has brought to the table for the Monsters this weekend: 6-for-9 (.667) with six doubles, five RBI and an absolutely sick 2.061 OPS.
Diaz joined the Monsters for this one-time only tournament appearance after playing all summer with the powerhouse Atlanta Blue Jays. He met Buster – who he calls “Coach Todd” –at last year’s Power Showcase event in Miami. Buster’s son, Zach (Z.J.) Buster, sent Diaz a text recently asking him to join the team for the weekend because they could really use another catcher.
“I just came to help Coach Todd out,” Diaz said. “He needed my help and he’s a good guy, so I came over to help him out. It’s a great experience being here; the things that Perfect Game does to put on these tournaments for everyone here, myself included – they’re the best in the business as far as putting tournaments on for the kids and trying to get them seen.”
Atlanta Blue Jays officials, fans and parents don’t have to worry about Diaz jumping ship. He describes the summer he spent with the Jays – including a combined three PG WWBA and PG BCS Finals tournaments – as a career highlight.
“That was the best experience of my life,” Diaz said. “The kids that I played with – two Perfect Game All-Americans (Benito Santiago and Touki Toussaint) – made it a great experience. I really enjoyed playing with them; it was best summer of my life.”
Diaz’s summer also included a stop at the Metrodome in Minneapolis for the Perfect Game National Showcase with 300 of the top-ranked prospects in the high school class of 2014. There were more than three times that many scouts and college coaches in attendance.
“It was awesome, playing in the (Metrodome) for the first time ever; not many people can say they played in dome anymore since it’s retired,” Diaz said. “The kids that were there – it’s the best of the best in the country and I really enjoyed the competition – and it was a fun, competitive atmosphere and I really enjoyed that.”
Diaz plans on rejoining the Atlanta Blue Jays at the end of October to compete at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla. Perhaps he’ll be able to say hello to some of his newfound friends from the Nola Monsters at that time. He has not committed to a college yet, with “yet” being the operative word.
“I’m still looking at schools; I’ve got some options here and there,” Diaz said. “I’m looking to commit here pretty soon after I take some of my visits coming up in September and October, and I’ll probably make my decision sometime after the (PG WWBA World Championship) up in Jupiter.”
Regardless of what happens here on Monday or what direction Diaz’s career takes, he will always have a huge fan in Nola’s Todd Buster.
“Brent’s the kind of guy – he’s got the grades, he’s got the ACT (test score) he’s got the entire make-up,” Buster said. “He’s a physical guy behind the plate but he’s also got the leadership skills on the field. Brent’s a wonderful kid – not just a great baseball player but he’s great academic guy and he’s going to be great guy where ever he goes in the community. Look for Brent Diaz to go somewhere big, definitely.”
Buster is also looking for Nola Baseball to go somewhere big. He has formed a partnership with former big-league right-hander Jack Cressend from the Louisiana Knights Baseball organization and former Southeastern Louisiana University righty Cole Catolano of the Hammond (La.) Yankees to form a new organization. It will be called NKY (Nola/Knights/Yanks) Baseball and will continue all three of the independent group’s objective of seeking more exposure for its players.
Buster has a more immediate concern at the moment, however. He wants his Monsters to finish off the Florida Express first thing Monday morning, win its semifinal game and advance to its second straight PG WWBA 18u Labor Day Classic championship game at 11:30 a.m. at jetBlue Park.
“I would be disappointed if we weren’t at jetBlue on Monday,” he said. “I think we’ve got a great team; we’ve got some fantastic chemistry and some extra arms where I think last year we fell a little bit short. But baseball is funny, so the way I look at it is that these guys are going to compete, give it everything they’ve got until the last pitch of the game and whatever happens, happens. Certainly I would like to be sitting in jetBlue on Monday at 11:30.”