FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Florida Pokers have a mantra that has led them to a hot start at the 14u Perfect Game World Series: attitude and gratitude.
For head coach Lenny Roberts and the Pokers, this mindset is evident both during their games and in their post-game ritual. Right after shaking hands with the opposing team, the Pokers huddled together next to the fence where their friends and family were watching, while one of the kids spoke to the group of fans.
Roberts explained the ritual, saying, “it’s a tradition I started about four years ago. Jim Tressel was the head football coach at Ohio State, and after every game he wanted to show appreciation for the fans and the student body for supporting the team, so after every game the players would go in front of the band and sing the alma mater in front of everyone; what happened was they created a whole family atmosphere. Being an Ohio State guy, I adopted this idea of attitude with gratitude. It’s our way of having each kid take a turn and publicly speak to the parents and thank them for their support and bringing them here, and they get to say whatever is on their mind.”
This ‘attitude with gratitude’ mentality has helped reinforce the Pokers’ focus on team baseball, which in turn has led to their success so far in the World Series. The team has bought into Roberts’ system, which he explained: “Fundamentally sound, hard-nosed, smart baseball. There are no heroes, no superstars, and everyone has bought into the team concept.”
The Pokers have already clinched a spot as one of the final four teams in the tournament after two days of play. They won their first game on Saturday against the Dirtbags to get off to a good start, and today they beat the CT Combat and Miami Suns in their first two games on Sunday, and in doing so they confirmed that they would be among the last four teams in the tournament.
Christian Scott and Jake Buxbaum, both of whom pitched on Sunday, lead the Pokers’ pitching staff.
Scott pitched against the CT Combat and threw a complete-game gem. He struck out eight while giving up just one run over 106 pitches and seven innings.
“Christian pitched a phenomenal game to put us in great position in this tournament,” Roberts said. “Christian is probably our No. 1, he throws his fastball in the low-80s and he throws three pitches for strikes.”
Eddie Ayala ignited the Pokers’ offense in the leadoff spot against the Combat. He went 2-4 with a double, a triple and three RBI, acting as a run producer while still utilizing his speed. The Pokers were down 1-0 going into the seventh inning, but they rallied for five runs, capped off by a bases-loaded triple from Ayala. They held on for the 5-1 victory.
In their second game of the day, the Pokers took on the Miami Suns, who won the inaugural 14u Perfect Game Florida State Championship last week. With Buxbaum on the mound, the Pokers met the challenge and defeated the newly crowned Suns 6-0.
Buxbaum had an interesting day on the mound, to say the least. He gave up one hit and no runs in 4.2 innings, but he walked seven and didn’t strike out a batter. Many of the walks came toward the end of his outing as he was tiring, but his stuff was still impressive.
On Buxbaum’s outing, Roberts said, “he did not have his good stuff. I told him, ‘that was the ugliest-best outing I’ve ever seen by a kid that shut another team out. He stuck with it, gutted it out. I’m looking for perfection from my kids, I know I’m not going to get it, but I want to see their guts and heart, and what he did was step up with the pressure on and guys on base. I was very impressed.”
The Pokers had a number of key offensive performers against the Suns, including Buxbaum, who hit a huge two-run, two-RBI double. Ayala once again had two hits in the leadoff spot to spark the offense, and Caleb Roberts, CJ Calero and Kyle Benson also came away with big hits.
Caleb, coach Lenny Roberts’ son, went 2-3 against the Suns with an RBI and a run scored. “He’s been struggling all season long,” coach Roberts explained, “but he was able to come up with two big hits after working the last two weeks with a new hitting instructor, which gave him a lot of confidence and allowed him to go up to the plate and come up huge for us.”
Calero is an imposing presence for the Pokers behind the plate, but he also gives their offense some serious thump down in their order. He had a massive double against the Suns and was in the middle of the team’s biggest rally of the day. “CJ is a great run producer deep in the lineup,” Roberts said. “Just when the other team is taking a breather after facing the middle of our order, they have to face a big bat like CJ. He’s come up big for us all season.”
Along with Roberts and Calero, Benson also had a big day, going 2-3 with a double and two runs scored. Roberts said Benson came into the game fired up and ready to contribute, and he did so tremendously, acting as a key cog in the Pokers’ lineup.
While the Pokers fell in their final game of the day, they had already earned a playoff spot after beating the powerful Suns. Going into the last day of pool play, the Suns and Pokers are both 3-1 while the Combat are 2-2, and because of the fact that the Pokers beat both teams, they have the tiebreaker advantage against both.
This is a big accomplishment for the Pokers, who go into every tournament with the same hope and expectation. Roberts explained, “Our expectation is to play in that last game, and at that point, anything can happen.”
The Pokers are now just one playoff win away from making that last game, and as Roberts said, anything can happen.