GOODYEAR, Ariz. – California Baseball Academy (CBA) Marucci elite prospects Chris Betts and Kyle Molnar have been down this road before, although much has changed. The 3rd annual 17u Perfect Game World Series is like a highway that has been widened and repaved while also taking on a few more twists and turns, just to keep a driver’s attention.
Betts and Molnar were both at the inaugural 17u Perfect Game World Series in 2012 with the late Mike Spiers and the ABD Bulldogs. They were a couple of young guys who had just finished their freshman year in high school and found themselves playing in an upper class event with and against the best players in the country that were at least two years older than them.
“This tournament has always been a good time; it’s really a lot of fun,” Betts said Monday morning from a dugout on one of the fields at the Goodyear Park Recreational Complex before CBA Marucci entered play in the newly instituted eight-team double-elimination playoff bracket. “It’s a lot better than … the single-elimination (format), and you just feel like you have more life than in the old setup.”
On Monday morning, the eight teams left standing out of the 20 that started pool-play at the 17u PGWS Saturday afternoon played their first games in the double-elimination segment of the event. The elite eight earned entry to this phase of the tournament by finishing in the top-two spots in one of the four five-team pools the tournament opened with.
Chino, Calif.-based CBA Marucci won its pool with a 4-0 record – the only team out of the original 20 to win all four of its pool-play games – and earned the No. 1 seed for bracket play. That set up a first-round game against the No. 8 Prospects National Team from Kyle, Texas, a game CBA eked out 4-3 after scoring two runs in the bottom of the seventh.
In its four pool-play games, CBA Marucci beat the West Coast Mariners (Salem, Ore.), Tri-State Arsenal (Voorhees, N.J.), the Houston (Texas) Banditos and the AZ Prowlers (Peoria, Ariz.) by a combined 29-9, totals skewed by a 14-1 win over the Arsenal.
“This has been fun … and they’ve been playing good baseball,” CBA Marucci head coach Jon Paino said. “They’re a really, really tight-knit group. The pitchers did their jobs over the last couple of days and we backed it up with a few timely hits; it’s been fun.”
“We’ve just been hitting; that’s what we haven’t been doing all summer is hit,” Betts added. “Our pitching has always been good but we’re just actually hitting now and putting the bats on the balls and hitting the ball hard. You also need things to fall your way; there’s a little bit of luck involved in some games where it’s tight, but I think if we hit, we win.”
The CBA Marucci roster reads like the kind of document MLB scouts and college recruiters memorize and then have framed and mounted so they can glance at it from time-to-time when they need a pick-me-up.
Sixteen of the 22 prospects listed (15 from the class of 2015, one 2016) have committed to NCAA Division I colleges, and 14 of the 2015s and the one 2016 are ranked in the top-500 nationally. Every roster spot is filled by a California kid.
Right-handed pitcher/outfielder Molnar and catcher Betts are among the most elite, but they aren’t alone. Molnar (a UCLA commit) is ranked No. 13; Betts (Tennessee) No. 25; left-hander Eric Cha (Cal State Fullerton) No. 109; third baseman/right-hander Niko Navarro (San Diego State) No. 147 and right-hander/infielder Austin Moore (uncommitted) are among the highest ranked 2015s.
The core group of this CBA Marucci 17u team has played together since they were entering their freshman year in high school, Molnar and Betts among them; Paino calls them a “family”.
“It’s hard to actually put something like this together and have a team sustain itself for so long, especially the way club baseball works nowadays with kids moving in and out,” he said. “These guys are dedicated to each other and we’re dedicated to them, and when things get tough I think that allows them to work a little harder for each other and make sure that they take care of what they need to take care of.”
The players embrace the family-feel the program offers.
“We can be ourselves with each other and say whatever we want to each other,” Molnar said. “We’re like brothers out here and this is our whole family. We learn new stuff from each other every day … just all the small things that come along in baseball.”
One not so small thing that comes along rarely in amateur baseball officially came Molnar’s and Betts’ way on Sunday. That was when it was announced that they had both been selected to be members of the West Team at the 12th annual Perfect Game All-American Classic to be played Aug. 10 at Petco Park in San Diego, the big-league home of the San Diego Padres.
“I’ve been watching that game on TV for the last four or five years and to go down and play in it will be really fun this year,” Betts said. “I’m just going to go into it and embrace it and have fun, and whatever happens, happens.”
Molnar concurred: “I’m excited about it. There are so many great players going there, and it’s only an hour away (from his home in Aliso Viejo) so it’s kind of like a home game for me.”
He is also excited about the fund-raising all of the Classic players are involved with that will benefit the Rady Children’s hospital in San Diego, and about the visit the players will make to the hospital on Aug. 8, two days before the game itself.
“It’s going to be an honor to meet those kids,” he said. “Just what they’re going through and how they live their lives every day, I’m just going to be so happy to meet all of them.”
Paino and the CBA Marucci program will wear Molnar’s and Betts’ inclusion in the Classic like a badge of honor.
“That’s icing on the cake,” he said. “That really, really allows us to believe that we’re doing the right things and putting kids in the right positions. Chris and Kyle have been on this team since they were 13, and watching them grow and watching them develop into the men that they are now (is special).
“We’ve had some other guys in the past that have done it, but having these kids for so long and seeing them succeed and seeing them accomplish everything that they’ve accomplished makes us really, really feel a sense of pride.”
It will be another three weeks before Molnar and Betts will head for San Diego and there is still some serious work to do here in the desert. The 17u Perfect Game World Series has grown into one of the most highly anticipated events on the PG calendar in its three short years and teams put a lot of pressure on themselves to do well so they will be asked to return the following year.
“This is one our big events that we got everybody out to,” Paino said. “First of all, we’re super excited to be considered for an event like this and to be in the position that we’re in right now. … But just to be considered for an event like this – for us, that’s a huge plus.”
And this year’s tournament is bringing out the best not only in the players but the coaches, as well. The new format is being met with universal praise and a lot of that has to do with the fact that it offers both mulligans and significant challenges.
“This is the best format (Perfect Game) has ever done; the second tournament starts today, really,” Paino said. “It really, really stretches a team and forces a team to be a team; you can’t just walk out here with four or five number-ones and expect to get through the grind of a double-elimination after four pool-play games. This is the best format ever.
“This is a little more forgiving but yet I think it’s a little tougher at the same time,” he said. “Just making it to the final eight is a huge accomplishment.”
CBA Marucci’s road to the 17u Perfect Game World Series national championship hit a speed bump early Monday afternoon when the No. 5-seeded Houston Banditos – a team CBA beat 5-3 during pool-play – knocked them into the losers’ bracket with a wild 11-7 setback. The Banditos led 7-2 after 4 ½, CBA tied it at 7 in the sixth and the Banditos won it with four in the seventh.
CBA will still be playing Tuesday but another loss means elimination from the tournament. It’s just one of those twists and turns along this freshly paved and widened highway that caught no one by surprise.
“There are so many great teams from all over the country out here and I’ve already met some guys from Pennsylvania,” Molnar said. “There are all these great teams and so many great players … and definitely, as a program, we want to do well.
“We have very high expectations for ourselves, and it helps a lot with the double-elimination; in case we have a messed-up game we’ll still have another game to work at and try to get back to the championship game.”
And there will be other opportunities, as well.
This CBA Marucci team has one more tournament obligation this summer over in New York and then is looking forward to a very busy and challenging fall season. Paino plans to have the team at the inaugural Perfect Game California World Series, the Perfect Game/EvoShield National Championship (Upperclass) back here in Phoenix and finally the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla.