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A-A Elko a Scorp all the way

Jeff Dahn

Published: Friday, July 15, 2016

FORT MYERS, Fla. – As mid-July makes its unrepentant march into late July, highly regarded, highly ranked and perhaps even more highly respected Florida corner-infield prospect Tim Elko can look at what already has been and will continue to be one kick-butt summer of 2016.

His Perfect Game endless summer started right here in Fort Myers at the PG National Showcase in mid-June, where he excelled, and about a week later he was at the 17u PG WWBA National Championship at PG Park South-LakePoint in Cartersville, Ga., playing with his beloved teammates on the Altamonte Springs, Fla.-based Scorpions 2017 Prime.

With barely enough time to catch his breath, let alone a car ride or a flight, the resident of Lutz, Fla. – which sits about 15 miles north of Tampa – found himself back here again, this time playing with the Scorps ’17 Prime at the 17u PG BCS Finals, which reached the fifth day of its seven-day run Friday.

And that’s not the end of it. Sometime during the middle of next week, he’ll jump on a plane, perhaps with some of his Scorpions’ teammates, and wing it to Phoenix, where they will compete at the prestigious 17u Perfect Game World Series alongside 23 of the other top 17u ball clubs that will gather in the desert from locales all across the country.

“It’s a little bit of a grind. The whole summer has been, honestly; I think I’ve been home, like, five days the whole summer,” Elko said Friday morning from the Terry Park complex, and he said it with a smile as big as Terry Park itself. “But I think it keeps you in tune, it keeps you ready to go. Not really having a lot of ‘off’ time keeps you in the baseball mode and ready to play, so I think it’s a good thing.”

There is yet one more important item on Elko’s calendar after he returns home to the Tampa area from Phoenix with about a week left in July. Sometime around Aug. 10 or 11, he’ll get on another cross-country flight, this one bound for San Diego, where he will take part in all the activities and festivities that surround the 14th annual Perfect Game All-American Classic. The game itself will be played on Sunday, Aug. 14, at downtown San Diego’s beautiful Petco Park, the home of the Padres.

“God gave me gifts to play this game and I’m honored to play in (the PG All-American Classic); it’s really a blessing. It shows that hard work pays off,” Elko said. “I’ve watched the game the past two years but before that I wasn’t really sure what it was because I wasn’t always involved with Perfect Game. The last couple of years I started getting involved more with Perfect Game … and I think it’s a really cool game. Just to be able to play in it is a big honor.”

Elko spoke late Friday morning with more pressing thoughts on his mind than what he would be doing a month hence. The Scorpions 2017 Prime came into the 102-team 17u PG BCS Finals as a popular pick to win the whole darn thing based on an expansive roster with 20 2017s ranked in the top-500 nationally, eight of whom have suited up and are ranked in the top-152. Any one of that last group could probably represent himself on the PG All-American Classic East Team roster just as well as Elko.

But here comes the spoiler alert, and the reason there was such high drama surrounding the Scorps 2017 Prime’s final pool-play game Friday morning against Team Elite 17u-Cook, a Georgia-based club that had won only one of its previous four games. The Scorpions lost their pool-play opener on Monday to the Tri-State Arsenal Louisville Slugger, 4-1, after entering the seventh with the score tied at zeroes, and really couldn’t afford a second loss.

It happens infrequently at PG national championships, but the Scorpions 2017 Prime – the organization’s top 17u team – suddenly found itself playing with its back to the wall. After the opening loss, every pool-play game for the next four days had become a must-win, including the one Friday against TE 17u-Cook (1-3-0). There was a scenario where a Scorpions’ loss combined with the results of at least one other game within the pool would have kept the Scorps out of the playoffs all together.

“It’s been, actually – I don’t know if I want to use the word ‘refreshing’ but – it’s different,” Scorpions Baseball owner and 2017 Prime head coach Matt Gerber said of the whole back-to-the-wall scenario. “We usually just kind of roll through pool-play but we faced a good arm the first day out and it was zero-zero heading into the seventh and we lost it in the seventh.

“It’s been good for them to kind of have to focus-in on every pitch of every game and compete. It’s been good for them from that standpoint.”

In truth, the whole scenario was eerily similar to what the Scorps experienced at the 17u PG WWBA earlier this month in the north Georgia suburbs. After opening play with a win, the Prime dropped their second pool-play game at the event and despite winning their last five, they missed the playoffs. A week ago, there was nothing at all “refreshing” about the outcome.

“It gives you a little fight to make you want to win those next couple of games, and maybe even play a little harder,” Elko said when asked about the mindset the team had after an early pool-play loss. “We didn’t end up going all the way through to the end (at the 17u PG WWBA) but it really gave us ‘fight’ to do our best and I think at this tournament it’s done the same. We’ve come back strong and I think we’re going to make a good run through the rest of the tournament.”

The Scorps 2017 Prime dumped TE South 17u-Cook, 10-2 in five innings, on Friday to put an end to any of the drama. They had won their pool championship, which assured them of at least a top-17 seed but most likely no higher than a No. 12. Weather delays late Friday afternoon were keeping tournament officials from determining the final seedings as this was being written.

Elko made the comment earlier in the day that playing with this group of Scorpions was almost like getting the experience of playing for the PG All-American Classic East Team on a daily basis. Some of the most highly ranked 2017s who joined him in the dugout and out on the field this week included:

Shortstop Christopher Seise (No. 57 nationally, uncommitted to a college); right-hander Jack Leftwich (No. 64, Florida); outfielder Justin Farmer (No. 99, Florida); catcher/infielder Brady Smith (No. 122, Florida); catcher Jake Molle (No. 148, Central Florida); and corner-infield Raymond Gil (No. 158, Miami). There are five other 2017s on the roster ranked in the top-406 with college commitments to Florida, North Carolina, Ole Miss, Alabama and Mississippi State. Top 2018 outfielder/left-handed pitcher Connor Scott is a Florida commit ranked No. 25 nationally in his class.

“This team is different than some of the others we’ve had in the past in that it’s really strong offensively,” Gerber said. “A lot of the times in the past we’ve kind of been pitching-heavy with some good bats in the middle of the lineup … but this year we can really, really hit. That’s something that’s been a little bit different for me and my coaching staff, coaching a team where you’re relying on the long ball and just kind of waiting back and hoping it happens.”

Elko has his own take on this group: “All of these kids are great kids,” he said. “Not just great baseball players but just great kids in general. I think this is probably one of the most fun summers I’ve ever had. We’ve all got a great bond, we play well together, we hang out after the games; no one really has a problem with anyone. We’ve just meshed really well as a group and I think that really shows out on the baseball field.”

Elko is a 6-foot-4, 225-pound right-handed hitting and right-handed throwing athlete who Perfect Game ranks as the No. 49 2017 prospect in all the land. He is listed as a primary third baseman and that’s where Gerber has used him most often this summer, but he was at first base Friday and Gerber called him a “phenomenal” defensive first baseman and the pro scouts are starting to notice that. Elko has committed to head coach Mike Bianco at the University of Mississippi.

Gerber also said he thinks Elko will play third base at the next level and said he knows the coaches at Ole Miss like to think the hot corner will be in Elko’s future if he ever makes it to the Ole Miss campus in beautiful Oxford.

Perfect Game scouts got their first look at Elko at the 2013 14u PG BCS Finals when the 6-foot, 175-pound 14-year-old debuted playing for an outfit called Bullets Gold 14u; he was named to the all-tournament team.

He played in five PG WWBA, PG BCS and PG Super25 tournaments for FACTR Baseball in 2014 and 2015 and made his debut with the Scorpions at the 2015 PG WWBA Florida Qualifier in early October. He suited up again for the Scorpions later that month at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship and was again named to the all-tournament team.

“One of the first times our coach (Jerry) Kennedy saw him, he automatically said, ‘He’s special,’” Gerber said. “He’s a big, physical kid, uses the entire field, has a ton of power. Our other kids coined the phrase, ‘The Legend of Elko’ last fall and we use that a lot. He just has a knack for coming up with the big hits. He’s a quiet kid and extremely confident, and he just plays the game extremely hard. He’s a great leader by example.”

It’s a mutual admiration society when it comes to the relationship between Elko and Scorpions Baseball: “The Scorpions organization has done great things for me,” Elko said. “Right when I first started playing with them, that’s really when I first started getting attention from colleges (and) attention from all the PG guys. Just playing for Matt Gerber – he’s a great coach; great guy – he just really helps the kids with whatever they need.

“If you’re trying to get to college, he’ll get (recruiters) to watch you, if you’re trying to go even bigger than that, he’ll get the right guys to watch you. Playing for the Scorpions really helps anyone who’s trying to get to the next level.”

Elko said he has been very pleased with his development to date. He’s coming off his junior season at Tampa’s Hillsborough High School where he slashed .434/.533/.750 with 13 doubles, a triple, three home runs, 26 RBI and 22 runs scored in 25 games. He’s a firm believer in working as hard as you can every day in an effort to get better every day.

He told PG on Friday he’s been working with former minor-leaguer turned hitting instructor Dave Kent at the Hitting Zone Batting Cages that are part of the Cooper Speed-Strength School in Tampa for the past 10 years.

“He’s taught me everything I know about hitting: my approach, what I should be looking for, where to hit pitches,” he said of Kent. “I think he’s really had some of the biggest influence on my baseball career up to this point. He’s been in baseball for a long, long time and he knows a lot about the game; he’s really a great guy.”

And so, time marches on, and perhaps it’s more difficult for those of us who have even pushed a little past middle-age to believe that another summer is racing to its conclusion. Young men like Elko and his teammates don’t seem to notice it so much, or maybe that’s just us older folks not paying closing enough attention. Give a listen:

“This is coming down to one of our last tournaments of the summer, and we’re all just trying to have fun, honestly,” Elko said of the 17u PG BCS Finals experience. “This is our last summer of travel baseball and we’re just trying to have fun with it. Getting far (into the playoffs) would be even more fun but whatever happens, happens, and we’re just trying to have a blast these last couple weeks of summer.”

Gerber, still a young man himself, called this summer a “weird” one for his top Scorpions 2017 Prime squad, one in which the ball has taken some odd bounces and the team hasn’t been quite as successful in terms of wins and losses – which translate into championships – as many had hoped it would be. But he’s using the 17u PG BCS Finals as a springboard to Phoenix and the 2016 17u PG World Series where the Orlando Scorpions Prime are the defending national champion.

After that, Gerber will sit back and watch Tim Elko work his magic – “The Legend of Elko,” if you will – at the PG All-American Classic. So, Coach, do you think your young guy will fit in nicely out in San Diego, among the sea and the surf and all the other young top prospects from across the country, Canada and Puerto Rico?

“I think he’s one of the top guys in the country; I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Gerber said. “He might even win that Home Run Derby. We’ll have to wait and see.”

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