FORT MYERS, Fla. – It’s well-known that the 88-team field at this week’s 17u Perfect Game BCS Finals national championship is stacked with many of the best 17u teams from across the country. Just the mention of squads like the East Cobb Astros 16u, Scorpions 2015 Prime, Florida Burn 2015 Pennant, PBC PAL 17u and Texas Sun Devils bring nods of respect.
They are the organizations and teams with some of the richest histories that come to PG’s national championship tournaments and employ rosters overflowing with the highest ranked prospects from the nation’s incoming high school senior class. It’s a hierarchy of sorts.
Don’t dare mention hierarchies to the players and coaches from a proud program like the Palm Beach Select from Jupiter, Fla. While they have the utmost respect for the organizations that have won PG national championships, they aren’t ready to accept histories, rankings and expectations as the written rule.
“The rankings don’t mean nothing; the rankings don’t mean a thing,” Palm Beach Select 2015 middle-infielder Bruce Martin said Tuesday from a water-logged Terry Park Complex. “You’ve got to come out here every day and play hard and that’s why it’s (called) the grind; you’ve got come out every day and every day is a new day.”
The Select reluctantly settled for a tie with the Puerto Rico-based IBAHS Knights in their first pool-play game of the 17u PG BCS Finals on Sunday but rallied to win their next three games.
That included a 6-4 win over the Bronx (N.Y.) Bombers Tuesday afternoon in a game that started nearly 3 ½ hours after originally scheduled. Both the 17u and 18u PG BCS Finals’ schedules were plagued by morning rains that didn’t allow play to begin in earnest until mid-afternoon.
“We have a bunch of kids that play collectively as a complete group,” PB Select head coach Josh Lopez said after the win over the Bombers. “Whatever job or role we ask of them they complete that task and they just do a great job of doing so. They play hard, they play all seven innings of every game; they’ve done that throughout this whole summer. I can’t ask more from them and that’s the recipe for success.
“They’ve been very aggressive at the plate, having quality at-bats,” he continued. “The pitching staff has been throwing strikes and the defense has been making the simple, routine plays.”
Tuesday’s game against the Bombers provided a microcosm of what Lopez referred to. Martin, a 5-foot-10, 150-pound senior at Trinity Christian Academy in Lake Worth, Fla., smacked a three-run home run in the top of the first inning to help the Select build a 4-0 lead they would never relinquish. The bomb most definitely set the tone.
“I just tried to square the ball up and put it in play, because I’m not a home run hitter; I’m just a line-drive hitter up the middle but if you hang it, it’s just going to go,” said Martin, who drove another ball to the warning track in the sixth inning.
With two out in the bottom of the fifth with the Select leading 5-1 and a Bombers’ runner on third, 2015 centerfielder Cody Wilson caught a fly ball and fired a strike to peg the runner at home. The throw had scouts shaking their heads in appreciation.
And Daniel Mayer, a 6-foot, 175-pound right-hander from Boynton Beach, Fla., completed the deal by scattering nine hits over six innings and giving Lopez everything he could ask for on this day. 2015 right-hander Mike Razzo came on in the seventh to finish the job.
“I felt like I wanted to finish the game because I like to go all the way; I don’t like someone coming in for me,” Mayer said. “But Razzo … got the job done and we won the game and that’s all that matters. If they take me out, all that matters is winning the game; that’s all I want.”
It seems to be the only thing every one of the Palm Beach Select roster wants as they go toe-to-toe with the country’s best.
The majority of this Select team has played together for at least the last two years but even the newcomers are “local” guys, all coming from Palm Beach County. Many of the players are teammates at county high schools, including Jupiter (Fla.) High School, Wellington (Fla.) High School and Park Vista Community High School in Lake Worth, Fla.
“They’ve known each other, whether they’ve played with each other or against each other at some point; they’re very familiar with each other and it shows on the field,” Lopez said. “They have fun, they’re a loose bunch, they’re aggressive and most importantly – other than the development stage within the program – we do stress having fun; having fun is key for us.”
Through four games, the Select were hitting .404 as a team with 36 singles, four doubles and four home runs. Three batters were hitting over .500, including 2015 third baseman Anthony Maniotis, who was at .583 (7-for-12) with a double, a home run and six RBI. Martin hit .462 (6-for-13) with the home run and six RBI, and Connor Webb and Jarret O’Leary – a North Florida commit – also homered.
“Our hitting has picked up tremendously,” Mayer said. “At the start of the year it was slow but now it’s just firing on all cylinders; the defense, every single position is solid for us right now, so I would say we’re a solid team.”
2015 shortstop Matthew Morales from Wellington, Fla., hit .462 (6-for-13) with three RBI and three runs scored. Morales is ranked No. 264 nationally in the 2015 high school class, the only Palm Beach Select player ranked higher than 550. Nine others, however, are ranked in the top 600.
“Again, they’re just a bunch of kids that understand their roles,” Lopez said. “If you don’t have the 90-plus on the bump, they know that they may have to pitch backwards in certain situations depending on the hitters, and they use their heart and their mind to get through the games.
“They’re a loose bunch and they’re a confident bunch,” he continued. “They are very disciplined in all aspects of the game and their baseball IQ is very high, so when they get on base they’re looking to take advantage of any miscue or any weakness of the other team that may present itself at that particular time.”
Lopez said he sees some of the players on his roster continuing to grow and get bigger and stronger and become top-level prospects one day. He calls those players “sleeper talents” who maybe aren’t as physically mature as they will be in a year or two but are very good ballplayers who will only continue to get better.
“The development aspect is the main key of the program at Palm Beach Select that we stress and emphasize on a daily basis, whether it be at practice or whether it be in a tournament” Lopez said. “These guys do a great job of wanting to learn the game and me as a coach I want to learn the game as much as they do.”
Lopez, whose experience as a player ended at the high school level, has spent the last nine years coaching at both the high school and collegiate level including the last two as an assistant coach at Palm Beach State College. His passion for the game has rubbed of his teenaged players.
“I think the key is desire,” Mayer said when asked to describe the team’s attributes. “Whenever someone has a bad game they’re always in the cages hitting again, they always want to get the job done and they do everything to get the job done and score some runs for us. The defense is amazing and that’s what helps us win games.”
After commenting on his teammates’ national prospect rankings – or lack, thereof – Martin, the unlikely home run king, did comment on what it meant to him to be a member of this Palm Beach squad, which is decidedly a Select few.
“It’s an honor to be a part of this team,” he said. “Everyone’s aggressive, everyone plays well together; we have good camaraderie with everybody. We go out there and play hard and we’ve got a chip on our shoulder and we go out there and play hard with that.
“We’ve got good defense, we’ve got good pitching and our hitting can be timely – we have the big innings. We just have to capitalize and keep it going.”