FORT MYERS, Fla. – Once the Virginia Cardinals had their invitation request accepted to participate in the 13th annual Perfect Game WWBA Underclass World Championship, they arrived in Southwest Florida with really one expectation: Win their pool and join 53 other teams in Sunday’s playoff bracket-play.
Anything beyond that – like a low seed – would be like a third dip of ice cream added to a double-dip cone. Too many ground balls don’t find holes; too many pitches don’t break; too many throws go errant to expect anything but the unexpected.
So when the Midlothian-based Virginia Cardinals zipped through pool-play, out-scoring their three opponents by a combined 25-2 along the way, and earned the playoffs’ No. 6 seed – and the first-round bye that went with it – it was like a second birthday kiss when one would have been just fine.
“It was really kind of the luck of the draw for us,” Cardinals head coach Rich Graham said Sunday before his team played Ohio Elite in a second-round game at the Lee County Sports Complex, the spring training home of the Minnesota Twins.
“We really had some great defense and some good pitching that allowed us to keep our runs down, and that was the difference,” he said. “It isn’t that the teams that are behind us (in the seedings) couldn’t have done exactly what we did – I’m sure they could have, every single one of them – so we feel very fortunate to have gotten that bye.”
Good, solid play in all three facets of the game – hitting, defense and pitching – also enabled the Cardinals to earn that first-round bye. They hit .394 as a team – although only four of their 28 hits went for extra bases – and committed only one error in 69 total chances.
“I think we mostly just relied on our defense,” said Cayman Richardson, a 2016 middle-infielder from Mechanicsville, Va., who has committed to the University of Virginia. “We usually just pitch to contact and I think our defense has played a really strong role for us so far. Now we need to start swinging the bats a little bit more and jump on some of these teams so we can rely on our defense.”
While defense and timely hitting certainly played big roles in the Cardinals’ pool championship, Graham gave all the credit to his pitching staff. Five pitchers combined to allow only two earned runs over 16 innings (0.86 ERA) in those three pool-play wins.
“We pitched really well, and that was the key,” he said. “Whenever you get into one of these tournaments there are so many good teams that it’s really a blessing to be able to land in the top-10 and get a bye, because it’s so hard to do; if you look at teams 11 through 54 there are a lot of stout squads.”
Graham felt the deal-sealer during pool-play was delivered by 2016 left-hander Robert Fultineer from Chester, Va., in the Cards’ 1-0 win over the Brevard Aces in their second game of the tournament. Fultineer pitched a complete game four-hit shutout with three strikeouts and one walk and allowed Graham to stay away from using his bullpen.
“That was a really good team and a stiff challenge for us … and (Fultineer) was really masterful,” Graham said. “If you look at our whole tournament in the pool-play, it was that one performance that put us in position. If we would have just gone out there and given up five or six runs and managed to squeak out a win, we’d have the 40-seed right now and we’d already be playing this morning.”
The majority of the players on this Virginia Cardinals team have been playing together for five or six years – with a couple of additions and subtractions along the way – and have gone through Graham’s RBA South academy which he owns and operates in Richmond.
“It’s a good group and they definitely play together as a team,” Graham said. “Sometimes you get in these tournaments and some of the kids don’t even know each other because they haven’t been playing together very long, but we’re the opposite of that.
“… Every kid out there knows what the other guy is thinking and what he’s doing, and that goes a long way, especially in your tough times when you’re back’s against the wall, these guys know they can rely on each other; that can be the difference sometimes.”
The players come 11 Virginia cities and towns, mostly Mechanicsville and Mosely, and attend 13 high schools but there is a familiarity among them that is priceless.
“This group really blends together well,” said Justin Sorokowski, a 2016 third baseman from Mechanicsville who has committed to Florida State. “We’ve been playing together over the summer, just hanging out, and we all know each other since we’ve been playing together since were 12-, 13-years-old and we just kind of blend. Some of us go to school together and some of us play against each other in high school so we all kind of mix well.”
Richardson and Sorokowski are two of six prospects on the Cardinals’ roster – all 2016s – to have already committed to NCAA Division I schools. The others are: first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino, Old Dominion; left-hander/first baseman John Gregory, Richmond; outfielder Khalil Lee, Virginia Tech; right-hander Noah Murdock, Virginia.
Like so many coaches at this year’s PG WWBA Underclass World Championship, Graham spoke about an “accelerated” recruiting calendar in which more and more high school sophomores are committing early. As a travel ball coach, he likes being involved with the kids early in the process to help them make an informed decision when they choose a school, both in terms of baseball and academics.
Graham is excited for the six underclassmen on the Cardinals’ roster that have already made commitments, but he brought this team to the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship for the benefit of the 10 guys on the roster that haven’t made a college decision.
“It’s (great) to play against some of the best teams in the country but for us it’s more about exposure,” he said. “If you look at our roster we’ve got a lot of kids who have already committed and our goal is to always have 100 percent of them committed. Since the Cardinals have started as an organization we’ve had 100 percent of our kids go on and play in college and that’s important to us.
“… For us it’s about getting these guys opportunities and getting them in front of (college) coaches and this a great event for that.”
Early Sunday afternoon, the Virginia Cardinals beat the Ohio Elite, 4-3, in eight innings in a second-round playoff game that used the international tie-breaker rule to determine the outcome. Graham might refer to it as the “luck of the draw” but the fact is his team moved on to the third round – the round of 32 – to be played later Sunday afternoon.
Murdock, a 6-foot-7, 170-pound righty and Virginia recruit from Colonial Heights ranked No. 61 nationally, got the start and worked four three-hit innings, allowing two runs while striking out two and walking one.
“Noah has come a long way,” Graham said. “He’s a good pitcher, he’s a competitor, and to have him fresh and ready to go all the way into Sunday is definitely fortunate for us.”
But it was the left-handed Richmond recruit Gregory who finished up the job, grabbing the win by not allowing a run on three hits over 3 2/3 innings and striking out three.
“Our mind-set coming in was to throw strikes because we’ve been kind struggling with our pitching,” said Sorokowski , who contributed a sacrifice fly to the winning effort. “The last three games we just kind of found it and then we kind of found the bats and we just kind of hit our stride, and we’ve been doing well the last three days.”
Two-hundred-and-sixteen teams started play at PG WWBA Underclass World Championship on either Thursday or Friday and as of mid-afternoon Sunday, 16 were still standing – count the Virginia Cardinals among the upright.
“Last year we came down here and made it all the way to the sweet-16, and I feel like we played better in pool-play this year than we did last year,” Richardson said. “I feel like we have a lot of momentum going into the playoffs.”