GLENDALE, Ariz. – A combination of a sense of urgency and a high energy level has the PB (Priority Baseball) Outlaws playing on into Sunday at the inaugural Perfect Game Super25 17u National Championship.
Limping noticeably after losing their last two games during pool-play Thursday and Friday, the Los Angeles-based Outlaws took to the field for a Saturday morning quarterfinal-round game against the Indiana Landsharks from South Bend, Ind., with a bounce in their step and a reliable starter on the mound. They lived to play another day.
“We just really wanted to come out with a lot of energy,” PB Outlaws founder and head coach Mike Debelak said after his team sent the Landsharks back to Indiana with a 6-1 win in a game played on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ side of the Camelback Ranch spring training complex.
“We knew today we were going up against a team that hadn’t lost yet and we knew we had to bring a lot of energy, and that’s what we did.”
The win sends the Outlaws (3-2-0) into a Sunday morning semifinal game against the 9ers Prime (4-1-0), a team out of Hamilton, N.J., that beat the Outlaws handily during pool-play. The other semifinal matches Marucci Elite (3-2-0) from Baton Rouge, La., against Longshots Baseball (5-0-0) out of Downers Grove, Ill.
The championship game is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. inside the main stadium at Camelback Ranch.
Garrett Alexander delivered a two-run, ground-rule double in the top of the second that helped stake the Outlaws to a 3-0 lead against the Landsharks, and that proved to be more than enough cushion for 2015 right-hander Justin Yanez.
The 5-foot-11, 170-pound Yanez came through with a complete game five-hitter without allowing an earned run, while striking out four and walking two. He was in complete control on this day and his teammates’ energy level seemed to increase with each inning he returned to the mound.
“Working ahead and staying ahead was one of the main keys,” Yanez said. “I observed our other games and how we pitched and looked at some of the ups and downs of those games, and I realized that once we get ahead, it makes the biggest difference of all. My main focus was getting ahead and keeping them off balance – throwing breaking (balls) with my first pitches and not just staying with the fastball.”
The complete game was exactly what the Outlaws needed with the prospect of playing 14 more innings on Sunday laying ahead.
“Justin came in and threw strikes, threw the ball well and kept them off balance; he was a real bulldog on the mound, he really attacked the zone,” Debelak said. “He doesn’t back down from anything – he’s just got that mentality.”
The win was the second of the tournament for Yanez, who started Wednesday’s 8-1 pool-play, win over AZ Pro. He was taken out after 3 2/3 innings and his team comfortably ahead in that game, so after two starts he has allowed just one earned run in 10 2/3 innings (0.66 ERA) on nine hits with nine strikeouts and three walks.
“That’s almost 11 innings in four days, so it was good for him to bounce back that quickly,” Debelak said. “When you’re (potentially) playing seven games in five days you need guys to go deep in ballgames and he did that today; it was awesome.”
Added Yanez: “I’ve just been trying to do what’s best for my team and go out and do my best; it’s been pretty good for the most part. We picked up some energy today and got some momentum.”
After opening pool-play on Wednesday with the 8-1 win over AZ Pro, the Outlaws used a 5-1 win over the Cleats Pilots early Thursday to move to 2-0 at the tournament. 2015 righty Austin Logan threw a six-inning, three-hitter at Cleats, didn’t allow an earned run and struck out nine and walked three.
The high level at which they were playing seemed to leave the Outlaws after that win, losing to Longshots Baseball, 8-1, on Thursday and to 9ers Prime, 10-2, on Friday. The team’s pulse returned to – and even exceeded – normal levels Saturday morning.
“We wanted to come out strong with a lot of energy,” the Outlaws’ 2015 super utility guy Zach Lehman – the only Arizonan on the roster – said postgame Saturday. “We were low on energy the last couple of games and we wanted to come out and destroy the other team. The main thing today was to keep scoring, which we did, and that gave us momentum.”
Lehman was also excited about playing into Sunday.
“I just love playing baseball. It’s hot, but there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing,” he said. “When you get out here it just shows you how good the talent is everywhere and how much harder you have to work.”
If the stat sheet told the whole story, the Outlaws would come across as very unlikely semifinalists with a .215 team batting average and 3.84 team ERA through five games. Alexander is the leading hitter at .364 (4-for-11) with two doubles, a triple, two RBI and two runs scored; Lehman is hitting .357 (5-for-14) with five singles, two RBI and three runs.
Yanez and Logan have carried the pitching staff.
Debelak formed the Priority Baseball Outlaws organization almost five years ago when he was still in college, with some assistance from his cousin, T.J. Bruce, an assistant coach at UCLA. Debelak was helping out at a high school at the time and decided he wanted to get some of those kids together during the summer to help them receive more attention, potentially on a national scale.
The process started slowing but eventually the Outlaws organization began attracting better players – more than 30 have committed to play college baseball – and now fields teams at nine age-group levels, 8u through 17u.
The organization’s website explains the origin of its name: “The name ‘Outlaws’ was chosen for the way we envision each of our players to play the game. Outlaw players play the game hard, have a very competitive (take no prisoners) attitude, and above all they have fun!”
Quite a few of the guys from this particular group of Outlaws have been playing together for the last two or three years, with many calling the So Cal cities of Long Beach, Torrance and Anaheim home; there are a handful that attend the same high schools.
“They have really good chemistry,” Debelak said. “It’s awesome to see guys that are competing against each other regularly during the high school season, and they come out here and they’re like brothers. It’s really cool to see that.”
The Outlaws earned their way to this PG Super25 17u National Championship by playing in the 2013 PG Super25 17u SoCal Qualifier in Los Angeles Aug. 30-Sept. 2 and then winning the 2014 PG Super25 17u SoCal Regional Feb. 15-17 in San Bernardino, Calif.
They beat the ABD Bulldogs, 3-2, in the championship game of the SoCal Regional, and also faced high-caliber teams like the So Cal Renegades and CBA Marucci throughout their PG Super25 tournament experience.
“We’ve played some really good teams just to get here,” Debelak said. “The competition in Southern California is just outstanding – it’s really, really good – so I think that prepared us coming out here. … We’re probably more of a small-ball team with good pitching, good defense – that’s kind of the way do things. We have to clutch-up and get those key hits in those situations to win ballgames.”
With their previous experiences at PG Super25 tournaments as a guide, the Outlaws arrived in the blistering hot Valley with a pretty good feel of what lay before them.
“We have high expectations for ourselves and our team and what we need to do to execute but we also have high expectations for the competition level we face,” Yanez said. “The biggest thing of all is execution, and we kind of struggled executing bunts and some of the little things in past games but this game we got it done.”
Debelak was certainly counting on the Outlaws playing into Sunday. He stayed back in Los Angeles all week and didn’t leave for Phoenix until late Friday night, arriving in the Valley at 2 a.m. Saturday. He said he got about two hours of sleep before arriving at Camelback Ranch at 6 in the morning.
“I didn’t want to drive all that way out here to go home after one day today, that’s for sure,” he said. “I’m super excited and really looking forward to tomorrow and I know we’ll be playing a good quality opponent; I hope we throw strikes and play ‘D’.”