FORT MYERS, Fla. - Although Luken Baker has a very youthful face and wears braces on his teeth, there's really nothing else to outwardly suggest he's just 15 years old.
Baker, who hails from Spring, Tex., and will be a sophomore at Oak Ridge High School in the fall, stands 6-feet-4 inches tall and weighs 235 pounds. He towers over most of his other 15-year-old teammates with Twelve Black, a The Woodlands, Tex.-based team here this week for the Perfect Game 15u BCS Finals.
But while Baker's physique may differ from that of most of his teammates, he shares a common mindset: Just win, baby.
"I'm definitely looking forward to it," Baker said Sunday from the Lee County Sports Complex before Twelve Black was set to play Home Plate Chili Dogs-Maldanado in its second game of the tournament."We're going to do whatever it takes to win; that's what I came here for. It's fun being here; close games, break-out games; it's baseball. It's fun being around these other good ballplayers, and it's fun winning, of course."
Twelve Black beat Home Plate Chili Dogs-Maldonado, 4-3, to improve to 2-0 with four more pool games to play over the next three days. The first three pool games are important because their results will help determine the 16th and final playoff qualifier; the other 15 berths are earned by winning second-round pool-play championships.
Twelve Black head coach Dave Miles brought essentially this same group of players down here last year for the 2011 14u BCS Finals as the Texas Venom, and they advanced through the playoffs all the way to the semifinals before being eliminated.
"We're excited to be back with the same team," Miles said. "The pitching looks good and everything looks strong. We expect to get to the end, or somewhere around the end, and from there you have to have a little bit of luck and, hopefully, the pitching falls into place."
Everything kind of fell into place for Twelve Black in the win over the Chili Dogs. Jerry Murillo (2014, Houston) hit a walk-off single in the bottom of the seventh to clinch the win.
Right-handed starter Beau Ridgeway (2015, The Woodlands) gave up three runs (two earned) on four hits with three strikeouts in two innings, but flashed a fastball that sat between 83-86 mph and touched 87. The right-handed Baker was brought in and pitched the next three innings, allowing no runs on just one hit with four strikeouts while also sitting at 83-86 and topping off at 87 with his fastball.
Right-hander Michael Francis (2014, The Woodlands) picked up the win by pitching two perfect innings, striking out three with a fastball that touched 81 mph.
After their first two games, Murillo was 3-for-5 with an RBI and three runs scored; Trey Albaugh (2015, Tomball, Tex.) was 3-for-6 with three doubles, two RBI and three runs; and Collin Garrett (2015, Montgomery, Tex.) was 2-for-6 with three RBI. Garrett is almost as formidable as Baker physique-wise, standing 6-4 while carrying 220 pounds.
There is a core group of four players who have been playing together since they were 9 years old and most of the team has been together since they were 13-year-olds. The "core four" are Ridgeway, Luken, Murillo and Garrett, with the others filling the holes more than competently.
"They love baseball," Miles said of his group. "We practice hard every week and they don't ever miss (a practice); they also train on their own. We've got good parents, and I think that's a real key. I don't have any parental issues and they'll do whatever it takes for their kids to be successful."
Quite a few of the roster spots are filled with players in the class of 2015 are also teammates at The Woodlands High School. Three others attend Montgomery (Tex.) High School, and in all six high schools in the area are represented.
Miles takes pride in the maturity his young team shows at these Perfect Game national tournaments and how they are able to stay dialed in to the task at hand.
"We focus on playing the game the right way," he said. "There's no special challenges with these guys, maybe because we've been together for so long. Our focus is on trying to teach them how to play small-ball - we don't just have big arms and big bats, we try to teach them to play it right. All the little stuff, we focus on all that."
And the best place to gain that focus is at an event like the 15u BCS Finals.
"They provide exposure to teams you don't every play, and you can see how other parts of the country are playing the game," Miles said. "The pressure's on trying to get to a winner down at the end, and you're playing (against) guys that you've never seen before. It' real good exposure for them."
Miles said he and his "core four" have won five national tournaments since they were 12, but have never won a Perfect Game national championship.
"We were set up good last year but in the semifinals, our bats kind of slowed down," Miles said. "So we're excited to be here again."