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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Keeping So Cal distractions at bay

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Getting distracted from the job at hand is a part of every-day life for just about everyone in these United States, but there are specific situations and particular places that offer more distractions than others.

Imagine, for instance, being an athletic, 17-year-old young man living along the Pacific Ocean in the beautiful Southern California city of Santa Barbara. The teenager is trying to focus on what is developing into a very promising baseball career, yet at every turn there is the sun and the surf, beaches and bikinis and more entertainment options than the number of palm trees in Palm Springs.

Distractions aplenty, to be sure. But they barely register for elite 2016 right-hander Kevin Gowdy, a 6-foot-4, 170-pound senior-to-be at Santa Barbara High School.

“That’s never really been a problem,” Gowdy said when asked about the distractions. “I’ve never really done any surfing or anything – a ton of kids surf out in California – but I never really got into that and baseball has pretty much been it for me.”

It would appear Gowdy has maintained his focus admirably. He spoke Thursday morning from JetBlue Park after accepting an invitation to this year’s Perfect Game National Showcase, an event  to which only the top 300 prospects from the country’s incoming senior class are invited.

It would have been easy for Gowdy to blend into the crowd during the two PG National Showcase games played Thursday morning. Right-handers Riley Pint (ranked No. 1), Todd Peterson (No. 19) and Brenden Heiss (No. 47) all delivered fastballs in the mid-90s mph.

Gowdy, ranked the No. 20 overall prospect and the No. 10 right-handed pitcher, was right there with them. His fastball sat consistently at 93 mph and topped out at 94; he also showed a solid 81-82 changeup with late fade down in the zone. The performance made the 4,800 mile, cross-country round-trip Gowdy made with his mother, Laura, all the more worthwhile.

“I thought it was important getting out here to play against the best guys in the country and just experience this,” Gowdy said before stepping out on the mound. “It’s awesome meeting new guys from other parts of the country and just seeing what they’re all about. Playing against these different kids, you learn something new every day.”

Santa Barbara High School plays in the Channel Baseball League and is a California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Southern Section Division 2 school. Gowdy was a first-team All-Channel League selection this spring, one of only four underclassmen named to the 12-man first-team. The Dons finished 16-13 overall after a loss in the second-round of the CIF Southern Section D-2 playoffs and tied for second in Channel League play with a 7-5 mark.

“It was kind of a tough year – we lost a lot of one-run games so it was tough in that respect,” Gowdy said. “But I learned a lot and had a lot of fun so it was a good year.”

The fact that Gowdy plays his high school baseball in Southern California speaks volumes for the level of competition he faces during his spring season. Many of the nation’s top prep prospects live and play in Southern California and they, like Gowdy, are able to keep the distractions to a minimum.

“You definitely know that you’re going to playing against some of the best guys in the country but you just try to go out there and just play baseball,” Gowdy said. “You just do what you do – throw strikes and let the defense take care of it. You try not to think too much about who you are playing.”

Gowdy was involved in basketball and soccer until he was about 12 years old, but then he had what could almost be described as an epiphany and he became consumed with baseball. His parents, Steve and Laura Gowdy, never forced him into participating in sports, so when he told them that he wanted to give up the other sports and focus on baseball, they were fine with that.

“They’ve just always taught me to do the right thing and work hard,” Gowdy said of his parents, Laura and Steve Gowdy. “They’ve definitely had a big impact on me.”

Throughout his high school years, Gowdy has the opportunity to associate with some fine coaches, including head coach Wes Warrecker and his staff at SBHS and Mike Garciaparra with Garciaparra Baseball Group (GBG) Marucci. Gowdy pitched in three tournaments for GBG Marucci in 2014 and was named to the all-tournament team at the blockbuster PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla.

But Gowdy has benefitted most by a close association with Tom Myers, an area scouting supervisor for the Chicago Cubs who is based in Santa Barbara. Myers, a former minor league pitcher in the late 1980s and early 1990s, has a long coaching background which includes a six-year stint as the associate head coach at UC Santa Barbara and the head coach of the Brewster White Caps in the summer collegiate Cape Cod League.

Gowdy has been working with Myers since he was eight years old, and he credits a lot of his development to Myers’ work. Most of that work is done during the offseason but even during Gowdy’s high school spring season it is not uncommon for them to get together once or twice a week for a bullpen session. And the work will continue, nonstop.

“You can never be too satisfied,” Gowdy said. “You can never say, “Well, I’ve done this so I’m good,’ you just always have to keep working and it’s been nice seeing the progression over the years. Especially coming out to events like these I can really see where I was last year and where I’m at this year. I’m seeing how I’ve improved and what I need to keep improving on.”

The last time Gowdy was in Fort Myers was for last year’s Perfect Game Junior National Showcase, and he performed well enough to be named to the event’s prestigious Top Prospect List. In naming him to the list, a PG scout wrote: “Gowdy looks even younger than a 2016 but has the three-pitch arsenal and stuff of an older pitcher. He topped out at 89 mph with an outstanding changeup and a hard downer curveball (and) did a mature job of pitching to spits and working ahead in counts.”

“We were here last year, as well, so we knew what a great experience it is,” Laura Gowdy said. “We just want him to benefit from the whole experience with the scouts; I think it’s always good to pitch in front of more people and different scouts than he has before.”

A jump in velocity is the most common instrument used to gauge a pitcher’s progression, but Gowdy was showing improvement all of last summer and fall without any noticeable bump. He topped out at 89 mph at the Jr. National and at 90 mph at the PG/EvoShield National Championship (Underclass) and again at the PG WWBA World Championship while earning all-tournament recognition.

The improvement was steady enough for the head coach John Savage and the rest of the staff at UCLA to take notice, and Gowdy has committed to the Bruins.

The experience at the PG Jr. National was something Gowdy brought with him on his return trip to Southwest Florida this week. There are similarities between the two showcases simply in the way they are scheduled and ran, so a prospect that arrives at the PG National a year after being at the Jr. National knows a little bit more about what to expect.

“I definitely set goals like what I want to achieve and how I want to perform; that helps me stay focused,” Gowdy said. “There used to be (some nervousness) but not as much anymore. I remember last year at the (PG) Junior National (Showcase) I was pretty nervous, but this year not as much. I’m just trying to have fun.”

He’s having a lot of fun while also keeping all those Southern California distractions at bay. His mother has noticed that focus and calls her son a real “student of the game.” She’s been impressed with how much time he spends studying the actions and routines of other pitchers and how hard he’s been working to maximize his potential.

“He’s very focused and we’re very happy about that,” Laura said. “He makes some great connections with all the other guys he meets. It always amazes me that he knows guys from all over the country just from these events; it’s great.

 “It’s been a real fun ride,” she concluded. “We know that someday it will end but we’re enjoying every moment of it now. That’s been fun but mostly we’re proud of him because he’s a really great kid and to us that’s more important than the baseball part of it.”

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