FORT MYERS, Fla. – A long rain-induced wait finally came to an end late Sunday afternoon when the playoff round at the Perfect Game WWBA Underclass World Championship got under way about 20 hours after they were originally scheduled.
The blame for the delay rests squarely on the shoulders of Mother Nature, but she cooperated enough Sunday morning and afternoon that a huge backlog of games was able to be rescheduled and played. The first playoff games – there were four play-in games leading to a round of 32 – began at five venues scattered across Fort Myers.
There were 36 teams left playing for something from a field of 144 that began the tournament Friday morning. One of the final 36 was always tough, always competitive Palm Beach County PAL, which rolled over its three pool-play opponents by a combined 20-1 score and earned the playoff’s No. 5 seed.
The No. 1 seed went to the East Cobb Braves, who won their three pool-play games by a combined 21-0. No. 2 went to FTB Mizuno Royal (18-0), No. 3 to South Florida Elite Squad Underclass Black (29-1) and No. 4 to Chet Lemon’s Juice (21-1). The top four seeds opened the playoffs against the four winners of the play-in games.
The PBC PAL players and coaches were the first of the four teams to arrive at City of Palm Park for their round of 32 games Sunday afternoon. The players were chomping at the bit to take the field against the N.J. 9ers on COP’s auxiliary field adjacent to the main stadium.
“Our group has expected to make it to this round,” PBC PAL head coach Craig Gero said before the game. “We had a very tough game yesterday against the Giants Scout Team that we were losing in the sixth inning, 1-0. If we would have lost that game we would have been eliminated.
“It was not easy getting here but it’s really the last time this group will be together as 16-year-olds, so more than anything it’s fun to get to see them play together again.”
Like the other elite teams that earned high seeds in the playoffs, PBC PAL did it with pitching. Young arms belonging to Michael Smiciklas, Riley Colbath, Zach Gerboc, Jeremy Graff, Jared Johnson, Shane Sawczak, Bruce Bectel and Cody Wagner combined to pitch 16 innings in the three pool-play games and gave up five hits, no earned runs and struck out 23. Perhaps most incredibly, those eight pitchers didn’t issue a single walk in their 16 innings.
All of the playoff teams that kept winning were also scheduled to play their round of 16 games Sunday night. The quarterfinals, semifinals and championship game are scheduled for Monday at Terry Park.
Because so many games had to be squeezed into a limited number of hours on Sunday, PG officials decided to shorten all the playoff games to five innings with a 1½-hour time limit. That also made for some unique challenges.
“It’s hard work getting here, but now it’s hard work because you get five inning games. So right now, basically, the game is (starting) zero-to-zero in the third, and every inning becomes important,” Gero said. “It’s hard work and it’s going to happen quickly. That’s the interesting part of these five-inning games – if you fall behind you might not be able to catch up.
“It puts a different kind of pressure on (the players) but it’s also pressure you’d expect they should enjoy because teams don’t get to go to the playoffs all the time.”
Gero said the shortened games caused by Saturday’s rain delay won’t change the way he coaches the game very much.
“I think you might play for a run earlier than I’m used to,” he said. “But then again, the fact that there is a rain delay and those kinds of things, they’re going to go through that in high school and state tournaments, and I know some of the players we’ve had in the past have been able to draw on that.”
The teams that won their first two or three bracket games will be looking at the possibility of three straight games in succession should they reach Monday afternoon’s championship game. That would make five games in just about 24 hours, but Gero wasn’t looking that far ahead.
“We’ve got to win the first one, and then we’ll write a lineup for the next one. And then if we win two, we get to stay the night and we’ll get to tomorrow, tomorrow,” he said. “Everybody’s going to be in the same situation that we are – when you play five games in two days you can run out of pitching or you can have guys on the mound that really need to come forward and do the job.”