FORT MYERS, Fla. - The Houston Banditos coaching staff used a slightly unorthodox approach to the dual pool-play setup at the Perfect Game 14u BCS Finals. Their modus operandi paid off with a pool championship and an automatic berth in the tournament playoffs' round-of-16.
Each of the 44 teams in the field played a total of six pool-play games over the last four days, but only 11 of those teams gained automatic entry into the playoffs as pool champions based on the outcomes of their last three pool games. The other five playoff qualifiers earned at-large berths based on how they did in all six of their pool-play games.
While many coaches arranged their rotations so their best three pitchers would be ready to go in the final three games, Banditos head coach Robert DeLeon took a less popular route. He wanted to make sure the Banditos were in a strong position to gain a wild-card spot in the event they lost a game in the second round of three pool games while also making sure his top arms would be rested for the playoffs.
"We were thinking, let's go out and try to win our first pool - try to go 3-0 - and sneak by in the second pool, which we did. So now, our '1', '2' and '3' pitchers are rested for bracket play," DeLeon said Wednesday morning after the Banditos beat World of Baseball, 3-0, for their sixth straight win at the Finals.
"A lot of the teams here are pitching their '1', '2' and '3' guys in the second pool and they're not going be rested when bracket play starts (Thursday)," he said. "I think the way we did it is working out for us."
The Banditos won their first round of pool-play games by a combined score of 26-14, and then hammered Tri-State Arsenal Grey, 12-0, and beat the Florida Mustangs, 8-2, before shutting down World of Baseball on an already steamy Fourth of July morning Wednesday.
Left-hander Joshua Chavez (2016, Houston) twirled a seven-inning, complete game two-hitter while striking out eight and walking three to pick up the win and lead the Banditos into the playoffs.
"I'm very proud of Josh. He threw very well," DeLeon said. "He got four double-play ground balls and that right there was the difference in the ballgame."
Chavez worked a total of 8 1/3 innings in two appearances over the last four days, and allowed five hits and one earned run (0.83 ERA) with 10 strikeouts.
The Banditos scored 52 runs in their six pool-play games, thanks to some incredible production from second baseman Ryan Reynolds (2016, Sugarland, Texas) and outfielders Connor Capel (2016, Katy, Texas) and Michael Smith (2015, Magnolia, Texas).
Reynolds batted .636 (7-for-11) with a pair of doubles, seven RBI and six runs scored; Capel was 10-for-18 (.556) with a double, two triples, a home run, six RBI and seven runs; and Smith went 9-for-19 (.474) with a double, triple, home run, five RBI and 12 runs scored.
"We've come a long way," DeLeon said. "We knew coming into this tournament that it wasn't going to be easy; there are a lot of good teams here that can beat you on given day. We're playing great defense and our pitching is stepping up and they're making the right pitches at the right time. We're not hitting the ball as well as we should but we're manufacturing enough runs to get wins. But overall, I'm very proud of my boys."
Reynolds, Capel and Smith were among an amazing 10 Banditos named to the all-tournament team at the PG WWBA 2016 Grads or 14u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., late last month. While having that many individuals receive post-tournament recognition should certainly be a source of pride, DeLeon and his players weren't proud of the way that tournament ended.
The Banditos whistled through pool-play at the wood-bat event with a 4-0-1 record and entered the 16-team playoffs as the No. 4 seed. But in the first round, they were unceremoniously knocked out of the tournament by the 13th-seeded West Boca Panthers, 4-1.
"I'm still sick to my stomach about that game," DeLeon said. "After the game I got the boys together and I told them, 'Hey, remember this feeling. It's not a very good feeling.' That tournament was tough - I still feel the field in this tournament is a lot stronger - but it did hurt our team morale a little bit. But this week the kids are responding to it very well."
Ray DeLeon, Robert's brother, started the Houston Banditos organization in 1996 and it has thrived under his leadership. This 14u team showed up in the No. 5 position in Perfect Game's first 2012 14u National Travel Team Rankings and the Banditos are typically represented in the rankings in each age group's top 25. Every player, regardless of age, takes a great deal of pride in slipping on the Banditos uniform.
"All the credit goes to my brother Ray. He's worked his butt off to get it to where it is today," Robert DeLeon said. "He knows what he's doing; he produces teams year-in and year-out that win championships, here at Perfect Game (national tournaments) and just locally around Houston."
Most fans - and certainly most scouts and college coaches - will remember last summer's star-studded Houston Banditos Black upper class team that included Perfect Game All-Americans Courtney Hawkins, Nick Williams and C.J. Hinojosa. Hawkins was a first round selection by the Chicago White Sox in June's MLB amateur draft, Williams went in the second round to the Texas Rangers and Hinojosa was a 26th round pick of the hometown Houston Astros.
It's that Houston Banditos pedigree.
"We have a saying here in Banditoland, 'Go hard or go home,' and that's kind of what we live by," DeLeon said. "This program is about winning - we want to develop players, absolutely, as the year goes along - but when you play in these Perfect Game tournaments, we're here to win. Bottom line, this program is about winning.
"We have another saying: 'Good things happen when you put on the Black and White' and it's a great program and I'm just happy to be a part of it."
The Banditos open the playoffs Thursday and could potentially be looking at four more games in the next two days. DeLeon expects to be playing in the 14u BCS Finals championship game Friday morning at City of Palms Park; his young Banditos are especially motivated.
"I think (the performance) at the last Perfect Game tournament in Marietta left a bad taste in their mouth. Our pitching was set up so that we could advance in that tournament and we just let one slip by," he said. "Right now our pitching is set up to go as far as we can go, and if we make plays and throw strikes, we'll win."