FORT MYERS, Fla. – A fierce storm has taken control of Fort Myers this Labor Day weekend, but this particular storm does all of its destruction on the baseball diamonds, leaving behind a mass of defeated opponents in its trail.
The South Florida Storm Blue have used great pitching, sound defense, and exceptional hitting to take down all five of its opponents so far in the WWBA 18u Labor Day Classic, heading into Monday’s semifinal matchup with a perfect 5-0 record.
“We’ve been playing great baseball all weekend,” said South Florida Storm Blue head coach and general manager Gene Harris. “We’ve had great pitching, great defense, and that’s how we’ve been playing the whole year. We have a lot of chemistry. We have a lot of new guys that we’ve added to the roster, but they’ve been playing really well together and everybody’s been meshing really well. That’s what happens when you have a good team. Everybody gets along and has each other’s back.”
Those tools of success were on full display to take your breath away in Sunday evening’s quarterfinal matchup with the Florida Surge. The Storm were able to scratch across five runs in the first four frames, allowing right-handed pitcher Matthew DiNenna to go to work for six dominant innings with a defense behind him and a web gem worthy of a Sportscenter Top Ten spot.
The Storm gave DiNenna more than enough run support, as he threw six dominant innings, giving up just a lone earned run on four hits while collecting three strikeouts.
“We ran him out there about four times this summer and he’s like 3-0 and he throws really well for someone who hasn’t pitched in a few years,” said Harris, who is a former Major League pitcher himself. “He has a good two-seamer, good sinker, a nasty slider, and he gave us what we needed tonight.”
The 6-foot-2, 175-pound DiNenna was as efficient as they come, tossing just 68 pitches to record 18 outs. He retired 13 batters on three pitches or less, an impressive 62-percent.
Not only did he look the part of an ace on Sunday evening, he also showed off his hit tool, going 2-for-3 with a 2-RBI double down the left field line in the top of the third inning to add to his cushion on the bump.
It would’ve been hard to accomplish all of that, however, without the remarkable play of charismatic shortstop Gary Mattis, who accounted for six of the outs in the field in Sunday evening’s game.
“He’s been doing it all year for us,” Harris said. “This guy is a shortstop machine and hopefully we can get him in school pretty soon. I tell everybody he’s one of the best shortstops in the country and when I talk to coaches that’s the first thing out of my mouth, so we’re gonna get him somewhere soon.”
Mattis made a defensive gem in the later innings that was recognized by a standing ovation from the crowd and sent his teammates on the bench into a frenzy of excitement. It was the type of play that would cause every scout in the house to turn to one another and just say ‘wow’ with jaws to the ground.
A choppy ball hit to third base originally appeared it would sneak over the head of the third baseman and into left field for a base hit, until, out of nowhere, Mattis showed incredible range going far to his right to bare hand the ball on a choppy hop and make an off-balance throw to first base as his body took him to third base, getting the runner by a half of a step. It was a Major League-quality play that just solidified his strong case for being ranked No. 341 nationally in the 2016 high school class.
Mattis showed his bright personality with a tip of the cap and a slight bow to return the crowd’s enthusiastic applause.
“I just come out and do my best and that play I made, you can’t practice that, it just happens” said a prideful Mattis, grinning from ear to ear. “But when you do repetition after repetition something like that will happen and that’s what you work for.”
Mattis’ defensive highlight was the exclamation point to a fundamentally sound game for the Storm, who defeated the Surge, 5-1 and will take on the Team Avenue Aces 18u in the semifinal. It was one of many highlights the Storm can take home with them after this weekend, beating its opponents by a combined score of 51-9.
“We’ve been looking forward to this the whole time,” Mattis said. “Perfect Game’s a great organization to play for with all the scouts and people watching. It’s really a blessing, but we’ve worked hard for it and we’re just gonna play really hard and hopefully bring home a trophy.”
A Perfect Game tournament title would be a significant accomplishment for Harris’ young program, formally known as the Florida Pokers.
“It’s only been around for two years,” said Harris. “It’s a great program. We’ve come a long way just to be around for two years, so we can only hope to grow and I think we are growing with a lot of tournament success.”
Harris is confident that after his club’s latest success they should be riding confident into Monday morning’s semifinal game and, potentially, a championship game immediately following.
“We’ve got four or five arms ready to go and if we throw strikes and play defense, we should be okay,” Harris said.
If everything clicks for South Florida, like it has so far, we could have the makings of yet another destructive Storm.