FORT MYERS, Fla. – While the uneducated may have viewed the first three pool games at the 15u Perfect Game BCS Finals that were played Friday, Saturday and Sunday (spread out over three days because of rain on Saturday) as “warm-up” games for the next set of three, the educated know better.
The outcomes of those first three games hold considerable weight on how wildcard berths are awarded and also on the overall playoff seedings; that’s why Sunday morning’s showdown between Chet Lemon’s Juice and the CBA Copperheads Elite was so important.
Both teams entered the game 7:45 a.m. game at the Player Development 5-Plex with 2-0 records and were looking for a big boost in confidence and momentum heading into the second round of pool-play.
The Juice’s Jimmy Nealy, a 5-foot-11, 164-pound outfielder from Tavares, Fla., doesn’t believe in sneaking up on people. He is the leadoff hitter for the Juice, and after stepping up to plate in the bottom of the first inning, he drove a 1-1 pitch over the leftfield fence for a solo home run, and it was 1-0 before many folks had settled into their bag chairs.
“I had a lot of confidence starting out this game,” Nealy said after the Juice had held on for a tense 2-1 win. “We’re just going to come out and fight hard and be aggressive, and I hate it when I don’t get on that first at-bat; I feel like we’re going to lose. When I’m on, the game just feels good and I just keep playing.”
“Just keep playing” should be the rallying cry for each of the 82 teams participating at this year’s 15u PG BCS Finals national championship. The pool –play portion of the tournament can be a grind, with every team playing six games in four days and with the weather sometimes dictating that as many as three games being played in a day.
But after their three games played over three days, the Juice emerged unscathed. Most of the credit belonged with their bats – they hit .347 (25-for-72) as a team with six doubles and Nealy’s home run, and outscored their three opponents by an average score of 7-2.
“I’ve been very pleased with the way we’ve swung the bats; really, one through 10, we’ve swung it really well,” head coach Matt Burgess said Sunday. “Our biggest thing is we’ve been hitting with two outs … during the whole tournament so far; that’s been big for us.”
Quite a few of the guys on this Juice 15u team have been playing together for four or five years but they just joined the Chet Lemon’s Juice program last year as 14-year-olds. In 2013, they played in a lot of 15u events with Burgess as the head coach and this year they have been playing mostly 16u tournaments. This is, in fact, their first 15u tournament.
“This has been very enjoyable because for the most part we run this team like a very good high school team,” he said. “They make all the plays in the field, whenever we run our pickoff plays they’re always on point and they’re running everything well.
“We’re not like some of these other teams that just get thrown together and come in play tournaments; we practice twice a week and it shows. There really is not a situation we’re not prepared for on the baseball field.”
Playing up an age-group the last two years has also helped these players. Blake Young, a 2017 second baseman from Deland, Fla., who went 2-for-5 (.400) with a double, two RBI and four runs scored with a 1.171 OPS in the Juice’s first three games, thinks that was huge.
“I feel prepared (at the plate) because we’re used to seeing high 80s, low 90s (mph fastballs) and we came in here seeing mid-80s; it’s pretty good pitching, though,” Young said. “I’ve felt really comfortable out there so far.”
Among the other Juice players that felt comfortable at the plate over three games were 2018 first baseman Brady Allen (6-for-8, 2B, 5 RBI, 3 runs); 2017 middle-infielder DeAndre Shelton (4-for-9, 3 2Bs, 2 RBI, 1 run); 2017 catcher/right-hander Frank Nieman (3-for-6) and Nealy, who was 2-for-6 (.333) with a double, home run, three RBI, three runs and whopping 1.636 OPS.
“Our baseball IQ is really high,” Burgess said. “I’ve got a team right now where the nucleus of the team, they’re playing above their years. They know what to do in every situation and they’re not looking at me for answers. They’re going out there and they’re taking care of stuff themselves and really, I’m just out here to write out the lineup and tell them when they’re hitting.”
Burgess was not as pleased with the way his team pitched as he was the way they hit in the first three games, although seven pitchers managed to compile a 1.11 team ERA in 19 innings despite giving up 15 hits and walking 14 batters with 13 strikeouts.
2017 right-hander Hunter McMullen, 2017 left-hander Daniel Reyes and 2018 righty Jimmy Miller combined to throw a three-hitter at the Copperheads Sunday morning, with Reyes pitching 4 1/3 innings in relief of McMullen. Miller pitched the final two-thirds of the game to pick up the save, the third time in three games he has been brought in the seventh inning. He hasn’t given up a hit or run in 2 1/3 innings at the tournament.
“Our pitching is usually our strong point and thus far (at this tournament) it hasn’t been; our starters haven’t really been able to locate the strike zone,” Burgess said. “What I really need is for our starters to take us deep, deep, deep and they’re not doing that right now.”
The Chet Lemon’s Juice organization is based in Tavares, Fla., and is part of the Orlando-Kissimmee metropolitan area. Seven of the 22 roster spots are filled by players from Tavares but others come from all across Central Florida.
“Some of these kids drive three hours on Wednesday night and Sundays to come and practice with us,” said Burgess, who played with Chet Lemon’s Juice at the 2006 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla. “It’s not like a community team but they we bring them in and they know the Juice is a big name and they know that in order to play they’ve got to be at practice – if you don’t come to practice you don’t play.
“They’ve made that sacrifice so hats off to the players and the parents because I know those are long rides for the parents.”
The hard work and sacrifice paid dividends during the first half of play at the 15u PG BCS Finals. Whether or not that carries over into the next couple of days is what everyone will be keeping an eye on.
“I think this momentum is really going to help us push forward,” Young said. “We have that good attitude behind us and the moral support is great. We’re always hyped, we’re always up; we always like to get in the game – we’re always in the game – and I think that sets us apart.”
Will that be enough? There isn’t a team here that made the trip to Southwest Florida without a strong belief that they can be successful packed neatly in their equipment bags. They wouldn’t make the trip if they didn’t believe that.
“We came into this tournament with very high expectations,” Burgess said. “I don’t want to say that we expect to come here and roll through it – we know that there are some great 15-and-under teams here – but we feel we have a team that can compete; can get to the championship.”
Added Nealy: “We just want to win and achieve a championship. We haven’t got one yet – we got close and we lost in the semis and the final fours – so we want to get to the championship and win a Perfect Game (national championship).
The Juice relocated to the Lee County Sports Complex Sunday afternoon to take on the Connecticut Wolf pack 15u in the first game of their second set of pool-play Sunday. After jumping to a 3-0 lead and then falling into a 4-4 tie, Nealy smacked an RBI single in the bottom of the fourth that held up for a 5-4 Juice win. They were scheduled to play one more game – their third of day – early evening on Sunday.