FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The question was casual and unimposing, and not intended to provoke a pause or invoke deep thought. "So, how are things going, anyway?" was exactly what was asked, with no pretense and without challenge.
What followed was about 3 seconds of ponder from East Cobb Astros 15u head coach Dennis Jordan while he sat in one of the dugouts at the former Boston Red Sox Player Development 5-Plex Saturday morning.
"We're doing OK," Jordan finally answered, smiling and nodding his head while welcoming a visitor into the Astros 15u's domain. "I mean, we're doing all right."
That the answer was anything other than "We're doing great" or "We're on the top of the world" was what was most surprising. Jordan oversees the East Cobb Astros 15u ball club, the program that is here this week looking to claim its third straight 15u PG BCS Finals Perfect Game national championship.
This is also an East Cobb program that doubled-up with titles at the PG WWBA 15u National Championship in 2011 and 2012, making it the toast of the national 15u town. That title streak ended on June 27 when the Astros 15u were beaten by the Georgia Roadrunners, 5-4, in the playoff quarterfinal round of the 2013 PG WWBA 2016 Grads or 15u National Championship in their home base of Marietta, Ga.
"We're just not as good as we have been in the past; we're not even close, truthfully," Jordan said Saturday morning. "For the last two years we've kind of had a little 'wow' factor with the team -- they'd come out here and kind of 'wow' people. We're not that (way) this year -- we're just a good solid club. We're not going to have one pitcher who goes out there and just dominates, but the good thing is we're pretty good defensively and we can still run, which helps.
"We're just much more of a good solid club then we are with the guys who would just jump out there and 'wow' you," he added. "We have to work a little harder and do a few more things to try to get things done rather than just come out there and bang you."
There's nothing wrong with a "good, solid club" of course, and Jordan knows that. It's just that this may not be your typical East Cobb Astros 15u team in that many of these players are in their first year in the elite Astros program, having not climbed through the ranks as is usually the case. The team is also not as deep as it's been in the past, the result of injuries and another never before experienced happenstance that has hit the team hard -- players leaving the program.
"This is the first time we've ever dealt with guys quitting," Jordan said. "We've had guys that have absolutely said, 'Coach, this isn't what I want to do. I want to get better as an individual and I'm not going to get better by doing the team thing.' I understand that completely if that's what they want to do, but it's hurt us -- our numbers are down."
Jordan said the team started with a 20-man roster and it dropped as low as 14 at one point this summer. In his eighth season of running the Astros 15u program, Jordan's ground rule has always been that once the season starts he's not going to pick up additional players, simply because that's the way he's always worked it in the past. And let's face it, it's worked pretty well.
"Last year at one point we had nine shortstops, and one time we had eight shortstops on the field at one time," Jordan said. "That created a very athletic team and they were very team-oriented -- it just didn't bother that team. This team is a little different in that we've got to depend on somebody else doing it every day because one guy is just not going to jump out there."
It's not exactly as if the 2013 East Cobb Astros 15u have fallen from the ranks of the elite. They finished 8-1 at the PG WWBA 14u after the quarterfinal loss, and placed 11 players on the all-tournament team. Those players included top hitters Taylor Trammell (2016, Powder Springs, Ga.), Cam Shepherd (2016, Duluth, Ga.), Ryan Nelson (2015, Rex, Ga.) and Ryan January (2016, Swampscott, Mass.).
Trammell hit .412 (7-17) with five RBI and 14 runs scored. Shepherd and Nelson were both 11-for-17 (.407), with Shepherd slugging a home run, driving in 14 runs and scoring eight more, and Nelson smacking nine extra-base hits and accounting for eight RBI and 10 runs. Shepherd and Nelson were also named to the all-tournament team as pitchers.
January, the No. 62-ranked national prospect in the high school class of 2016, was 9-for-18 (.500) with two home runs and seven RBI. Right-hander Saul Foreman (2015, Atlanta, Ga.) earned all-tournament recognition after allowing five hits and two earned runs in nine innings (1.56 ERA) and striking out nine.
This is a talented group that certainly has to be considered a favorite to win its third straight 15u PG BCS Finals national crown. But there have been challenges for Jordan and his staff, which includes Brian Shook, Chad Jordan and Zach Jordan.
"It's been trying to find the guys that are going to step up and are going to be a little mentally tougher in the tough situations," Dennis Jordan said. "We've figured out that we've got a very good core of guys -- Cam Shepherd has been playing really well but, of course, he's suppose to. We've had a surprise out of John Devine, who has been pretty consistent, and he's never been in the Astros program before this year.
"There are guys that have stepped up, but we're going to have to have more guys step up if we're going to compete to the end here."
Jordan said there was some genuine disappointment when the Astros lost that rain-delayed quarterfinal game to the Georgia Roadrunners back home in Marietta, Ga., more than a week ago. "That was something that we're not used to dealing with; we're use to playing on that last day. Some of these guys are just not there yet."
"I think as a team it's still trying to find itself," Jordan continued. "We've been together now for four or five weeks ... and the problem is this team does not have too many leaders; it's not a very vocal team, it's not a team that's going to get up somebody's rear-end when they're not doing good. Last year, if we weren't doing well there were going to be four or five guys in the dugout fighting each other because we weren't playing well."
Jordan called winning back-to-back Perfect Game national championships in two different tournaments the last two years "hard to follow" but he thinks this current group of players should embrace that legacy and not shy away from it.
"It's a weight and a burden that you should want to carry," he said. "As an elite team you want to have the guys who know they're going to come down here and get the (opponent's) best (shot) and know that they're trying to knock you off. That's what we want to do and that's what we want to be, and these guys have had a hard time doing that."
The East Cobb Astros 15u looked pretty good in their two opening wins here Friday and Saturday. They beat the Florida Mustangs, 7-3, on Friday when Shepherd went 2-for-4 with a double and three RBI and Trammell went 2-for-3 with an RBI and two runs scored from the leadoff spot.
They rocked the Indiana BombSquad with a nine-run first inning and went on to a 12-0, four-inning win in their first game Saturday. The right-hander Devine (2016, Powder Springs, Ga.) threw four innings of one-hit ball and faced only 13 batters in the win. This is a team that just might be discovering itself in time to win the Astros 15u's fifth Perfect Game national championship in the last three summers, despite that perceived lack of the 'wow' factor.
"My expectation for this week is to come down here and win," Jordan said. "Sure, you can have a good time but I'm not coming down here to try to finish second or third or fourth -- that's just not what we're made of. We want to represent our program to the highest level that we possibly can.
"I told them yesterday, 'This is not all about you. It's about the guys that have been here before you," he concluded. "You're representing East Cobb at the highest level that you possibly can (and) you're representing the guys that have been here and won.' They've got to understand that this about a little bit more than just them."