FORT MYERS, Fla. – When the sun rose up over the Player Development 5-Plex just a little southeast of downtown Monday morning, the East Cobb Astros found themselves in a familiar position.
A victory over the Florida River Dawgs in the coming hours would give the always title contending Astros an outright pool championship at the 3rd annual 13u Perfect Game BCS Finals and an automatic berth into the PG national tournament’s round-of-16 playoffs, which begin Tuesday.
In truth, with a 4-1 overall record heading into the final day of pool-play, it appeared certain the Astros would earn a spot in the playoffs as one of six wildcards even if they were to lose to the River Dawgs.
“We’ve played very, very well except for one game where we probably had the worst game of our season,” East Cobb Astros head coach Wes Rynders said before Monday morning game with the Dawgs, referring to the Astros’ 4-3 loss to Alex Cintron Baseball in their third game of the tournament on Saturday. “Nothing went well; we couldn’t throw strikes, we couldn’t field the ball, we couldn’t hit the ball – but other than that we were pretty good.”
The River Dawgs, on the other hand, weren’t sitting nearly as pretty as the Astros. The gritty group from Bradenton, Fla., most likely wouldn’t be able to count on a wildcard berth into the playoffs if they lost to Astros. They had put themselves behind the eight-ball after opening the tournament with a pair of losses before rattling off three straight wins, including two on Sunday that gave them the opportunity to play the Astros for a reseeded pool championship.
Those losses, 10-9 to the MCBC Hit Dogs and 3-2 to Banditos-TX, came on Friday and Saturday. A 10-4 win over the Rawlings Arkansas Prospects on Saturday and two wins – 6-5 over the D1 RENEGADES and 10-3 over the Collier Tigers – on Sunday set the table for Monday’s contest.
“The first two games were tough losses – they were one-run losses – so we knew we were competing with everybody out here,” River Dawgs assistant coach Jeff Bogumil said Monday morning. “It was just a matter of getting a few breaks going our way and then we could compete with anybody out here.
“(Head) Coach (Scott Kolbe) is always very consistent in his message: Just keep doing the things that you’ve been doing and the breaks will start falling your way,” he continued. “If we keep playing our brand of baseball, we’ll be all right.”
AFTER THE DISAPPOINTING LOSS TO HOUSTON-BASED ALEX CINTRON BASEBALL, the Marietta, Ga.-based East Cobb Astros regrouped on Sunday. And whatever it was they did to bounce back – regroup, reload, rethink, re-everything – they did it with a vengeance.
First came a 13-0, 3½-inning win over the Collier Tigers, followed almost immediately by a 14-1, four inning victory over the D1 RENEGADES. With the 4-3 loss removed from consideration, the Astros had outscored four opponents, 52-4, in their four pool-play victories leading into Monday.
“The focus was back,” Rynders said of his team’s play on Sunday. “We hit the ball exceptionally well, we fielded it and we threw strikes. If you throw strikes at (the) 13u (level) you’re going to be successful; if you walk people then you give everybody a chance.”
This East Cobb Astros team was put together this spring using players that played at the 12u level last year with other teams from both inside and outside of the East Cobb Baseball organization. The Astros were playing their 61st game of the spring/summer season on Monday – they were 55-5 before the contest with the River Dawgs –and had played both 13u and 14u competition.
“They’ve been progressing well and hopefully we can do something special down here,” Rynders said. “We’ll see.”
The 13u PG BCS Finals provides a good test for a team like the Astros even if they already have five dozen games under their belt. That’s because of what is known at this level as the “60-90” factor: a 60-feet, 6-inch pitching distance and 90-foot base paths on the regulation-sized playing fields. The Astros had some experience playing 60-90 when they moved up to play 14u competition, but most of their games were on “54-80” fields (54-foot pitching distance, 80-foot base paths).
The game becomes more difficult on the bigger fields. Pitchers find it more difficult to throw strikes from 6 ½-feet farther back, and they have to learn how to pitch as opposed to simply blowing a pitch past a batter. Hitters have to learn how to “hit ‘em where they ain’t” in the words of the immortal Wee Willie Keeler, and not expect pop-ups to drop over a close-in fence.
“We’re teaching big-boy baseball now, not little-boy baseball,” Rynders said. “My kids are big and physical and on a 12-year-old field they look like giants, but on a big-league field they don’t. The stuff that they have to learn is that on a bigger field, things get caught that use to be home runs. … It’s a big difference, telling them to get on top of the ball and find a gap and play the game the real way and not the little-boy way.”
OTHER THAN TWO OR THREE RECENT ADDITIONS, most of the kids on the River Dawgs’ roster have been playing together since they were 10 years old. It’s a very local team – eight of the 13 roster spots are filled with youngsters from Bradenton and three others from Sarasota.
According to Bogumil, the Florida River Dawgs organization was founded last year and was originally affiliated with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes; there are teams as young as 8u in the organization.
“Really, the big thing for us is developing young men and not just developing baseball players,” Bogumil said. “The Christian faith remains a big part of what we do.”
He said head coach Scott Kolbe, the rest of the coaching staff and all the parents felt it was important to bring the team here for the 13u PG BCS Finals.
“Our main goal was to expose our kids to the best players that are out there, and we knew that would be accomplished here,” Bogumil said. “But we always feel like that on any day if we play the best we can that we’ll compete with anybody that’s out there.”
The River Dawgs played on regulation-sized fields for the first time in the fall but this spring and summer will be their first full season on the “60-90” fields. Bogumil agreed with East Cobb’s Rynders about the effect the bigger field has on the young players.
“It was a big challenge in the fall but by now we’re completely adjusted to it,” he said. “Those first few months, we realized that those 200-foot home-run swings are now little pop-ups right into the outfield, so we had some adjustments to make there; they adapted very quickly.”
THE EAST COBB ASTROS AND THE FLORIDA RIVER DAWGS played the last of their six pool-play games at the 13u PG BCS Finals like their playoff lives depended on it. The Dawgs plated a run in the top of the first to earn an early advantage, but the Astros tied the game with a run of their own in the bottom of the bottom of the second; they took a 2-1 lead with another single run in the bottom of the third.
The Dawgs weren’t through looking for bones, however. Daniel Tart (2018, Sarasota, Fla.) delivered an RBI single and Caleb Whitson (2019, Bradenton, Fla.) followed with a run-scoring double in the top of the fifth, good for a 3-2 River Dawgs lead. When the Astros failed to score in the bottom of the fifth, it looked like time might be running out on the boys from Georgia.
Still trailing 3-2 with runners on first and third and two out in the bottom of the sixth – with a seventh inning an impossibility due to an expiring time limit – right-handed swinging Derius Hulbert (2018, Lithonia, Ga.) stroked a line-drive single to right field that scored both base runners and gave the Astros the walk-off 4-3 win.
The Astros were absolutely terrific offensively throughout pool-play, hitting .401 (59-for147 with 14 extra-base hits) as a team in their six games.
Chayce Bryant (2018, Snellville, Ga.) went 9-for-15 (.600) with a double, home run, 11 RBI and four runs scored; Gavin Lee was 8-for-15 (.533) with three doubles, a home run, 10 RBI and seven runs; Caleb Reis (2018, Marietta, Ga.) was 5-for-10 (.500) with two doubles, four RBI and four runs; Jack Alexander (2018, Acworth, Ga.) batted 8-for-17 (.471) with three triples, four RBI and six runs.
And hitting from the two-hole in the Astros’ lineup, left-handed swinging Justin Wrobleski (2018, Canton, Ga.) created all kinds of havoc by hitting .467 (7-for-15) with a triple, one RBI, 12 runs scored and 13 stolen bases.
The pitching staff compiled a 2.48 ERA (11 earned runs in 31 innings) with right-hander Kyle Gray (2018, Dallas, Ga.) throwing five innings of one-hit ball without allowing an earned run and striking out 10.
The River Dawgs were also pretty good offensively during their 3-3 run through pool-play, hitting .329 (56-for-170, 12 extra-base hits) as a team in their six games. John DiPasqua (2019, Bradenton, Fla.) went 7-for-13 (.538) with a double, seven RBI and four runs scored and Danny Rodriguez was 11-for-21 (.524) with a pair of doubles, three RBI, eight runs and five stolen bases.
Whitson was 6-for-18 (.333) with a double, a home run, seven RBI and four runs at the plate, and gave up four earned runs on seven hits over nine innings (3.11 ERA) while striking out 11 from the mound. He pitched 5 1/3 innings, gave up two earned runs on five hits and struck out nine against the Astros on Monday.
“This has been a fantastic experience; we’ve been thrilled,” Bogumil said. “The facilities are great, the organization (of the event) has been great and we’ve really, really enjoyed it. The opportunity to play two games at the stadium (City of Palms Park on Sunday) was amazing; the kids just loved it.
“It is still all about having fun. We’re trying to develop great ballplayers and great young men, but if we’re not having fun along the way – they are still kids.”