Tournaments : : Story
Sunday, October 11, 2015

Back in Black, FTB rolls

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – For the last four days, FTB Black head coach Luis Arzeno has arrived at either Terry Park, the Player Development 5-Plex or the JetBlue Player Development Complex and faced the most challenging task of his waking hours. He had to fill out his starting lineup card.

Arzeno and FTB co-coach Mike Baio have the built-for-success FTB Black squad at this weekend’s Perfect Game WWBA Underclass World Championship looking for a PG national championship that has eluded the premier FTB organization in this event’s previous 13 years.

Armed with a roster that features six class of 2017 prospects ranked in the top-79 nationally and one 2018 who is ranked No. 4, it’s fair to say the Black came into the PG WWBA Under World as the pre-tournament favorite – at the very least a favorite to play into Monday’s round-of-eight. That puts even more pressure on Arzeno to make sure he gets the lineup right.

 “With this kind of team, it’s hard for me because everybody could be a 3-hitter; everybody could be a 4-hitter,” he said Sunday at JetBlue where FTB Black was preparing to play what it hoped to be its first three playoff games on this day.

“It can be challenging, but at the same time it can be easy because I don’t have to worry about who I put in those spots,” Arzeno added with a wide smile. “Everybody can do the job and everybody is good enough to be in any hole in the lineup.”

Alec Sanchez, an impressive class of 2018 middle-infielder from Jacksonville who has already committed to Florida State and is that 2018 prospect who sits in the No. 4 spot in the national prospect rankings, can understand his coach’s dilemma.

“This is the best team I’ve ever played on because all of us are really good,” Sanchez said Sunday. “The coaches say it’s hard to write-out the lineup because everyone could hit in the 3-hole or 4-hole, so I really think we can win it all. We want to win and just experience this whole tournament, but our goal is to win it all.”

The Kissimmee, Fla.-based FTB Black snagged the No. 6 seed in the playoffs after outscoring their three pool-play opponents by a combined 27-2. It seems unlikely five teams completed pool play with better numbers – meaning they allowed either zero or one run, or scored more than 27 while allowing two – but that’s the nature of the beast at this event.

Top FTB Black 2017 catching prospect Meryl “MJ” Melendez is participating in his 26th Perfect Game but is at his first PG WWBA Underclass World Championship, and he already understands the level of competition the Black is up against.

“Anything that has to do with baseball I love to do it,” he said Sunday. “Perfect Game puts together amazing tournaments with a lot of teams and a lot of great competition, and there are some great athletes out here. It’s an honor to be a part of this big tournament with big names and it’s just been awesome.”

A lot of those “big names” were seen wearing the uniforms of the FTB Black this weekend, one of five FTB teams entered in the event – FTB 2018, FTB Puerto Rico, FTB Royal and FTB 55 Elite were the other entrants – and the 55 Elite joined the Black in the playoffs as the No. 26 seed.

Three 2017 prospects on the Black’s roster are ranked in the top-32 nationally: shortstop Francis Villaman from Orlando (a Florida State recruit, ranked No. 21); right-hander Altoon Coleman from Sanford, Fla. (Florida State, No. 27); and the catcher/middle-infielder Melendez from Montgomery, Ala. (Alabama State, No. 32).

Corner-infielder Bubba Sangster from Altoona, Fla. (South Florida, No. 61), outfielder/first baseman Oraj Anu from Orlando (uncommitted, No. 64) and Mitchell Stone from Shawnee, Okla. (uncommitted, No. 79) round out the Black’s list of top-100 prospects.

Seven others on the roster have committed to D-I schools, adding the programs from South Carolina, Central Florida and Oklahoma State to the schools previously mentioned. The Oklahoma State commit is Jake Taylor from Tecumseh, Okla. – ranked No. 172 nationally – who was 5-for-7 (.714) with three doubles, five RBI and two runs scored in the Black’s three pool-play wins.

“We have a group of players that like to play hard; they hustle a lot,” Arzeno said. “They travel a lot but they always play hard, and they don’t care if they’re tired, they give 100 percent when they’re out in the field.”

As an example of that strong work ethic, Arzeno pointed to what transpired at the tournament on Saturday. The Black had started playing a game in the morning that was suspended by rain and wouldn’t be completed until much later that afternoon.

“After we finished that game, everyone decided they wanted to go to the cages and get in some extra hitting just to get ready for today,” Arzeno said.

He explained that a lot of the prospects playing on this particular underclass team have been together in the FTB organization for the last three or four years. Quite a few of them came on board two years ago when FTB took on the young players from the MBA Pride Elite program that was ran by Mervyl Melendez Sr., MJ’s father and the head coach at Alabama State University in Montgomery.

MJ Melendez called his experiences with FTB “absolutely amazing.”

“I would recommend FTB to anyone who love s to play the game of baseball and likes to be treated like family; everyone here has a warm welcome,” he said. “I remember coming into FTB the first time and meeting all the coaches and they were just absolutely awesome. They took me under their wing and they’re just great teachers for baseball and life and everything.”

The younger Melendez made his Perfect Game debut at the 2012 13u PG BCS Finals playing for his dad’s MBA Pride team. MJ had already committed to play for his dad at Alabama State as 13-year-old, and he continues to appreciate the guidance his father has provided.

“I go and practice with his college team every single day after school,” Melendez said. “He’s taught me everything about the game and he will continue to do that forever. Hopefully, if I ever make it to the major leagues someday, I’m sure he’ll always still be there.”

It’s already been a long haul for the athletic Melendez, and with two more years of high school baseball remaining he still has a long way to go. That said, he couldn’t be any happier about the way his game has progressed, thanks to the efforts of his father, his coaches at FTB and at St. James High School in Montgomery, and, of course, his own.

“I feel like I’ve learned so much (in the last couple of years), especially as a catcher learning how to control the game and learning how to call pitches in certain situations; my dad has helped me a lot with that,” Melendez said. “I’ve learned how to be a leader; play with energy. You can’t ever slack off and you always have to play at 100 percent.”

As a member of the class of 2018, this is Sanchez’s first appearance at the PG WWBA Under World, and you can count him among the duly impressed.

“I like the competition, and it’s for (five days) so I get to miss school,” he said with a smile. “But it’s the level of competition that makes it fun.” At mid-morning on Sunday, Sanchez was already preparing for the prospect of playing 21 innings in a span of about eight hours: “You have to grind, you have to hydrate and you just have to be ready for a long day,” he said.

The Black used the time-tested recipe for success of great pitching and timely hitting to scoot past No. 59-seed Baseball U Underclass from West Long Branch, N.J., 5-0 in their playoff opener. 2017 left-hander Logan Allen from Deltona, Fla. – who has also committed to Alabama State – delivered a sparkling complete-game, one-hit shutout, striking out eight and walking no one.

Sanchez singled and drove in a pair of runs and Taylor smoked his fourth double and drove in his sixth run of the tournament. Sanchez was simply champing at the bit to get back on the field this weekend; he hasn’t been at a PG tournament since he slipped on an FTB Pride uniform and played in the 16u Perfect Game World Series in Emerson, Ga., in late July.

“I needed to get back at it because this is my first tournament back (since that event),” he said. “I felt a little rusty the first couple of game but I’m feeling better now.” Sanchez does plan on playing for one of FTB’s two entrants at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in a little over a week.

As the final words of this short essay were being pounded into a laptop that was sitting atop a picnic table looking out onto one of the immaculate practice fields at the Boston Red Sox’s JetBlue Player Development Complex, FTB Black put the finishing touches on an 8-0, second-round playoff victory over No. 38 Florida Burn 2018 Pennant.

Coleman, the No. 27-ranked Florida State recruit, worked five one-hit, shutout innings, striking out eight and walking three; 2017 right-hander Kemil Milanes pitched the sixth inning and struck-out all three batters he faced. Jorge Ramirez hit a two-run home run and Sanchez drove in two more runs without the benefit of a base-hit. Two down, one to go …

“I came here to win,” Arzeno said. “I talked to (Melendez Sr.) and I told him, ‘Listen, we’re going to be in this tournament and we’re going to win.’ He sent a message back to me after looking at our team and said, ‘You’re going to win; you’re going to win.’ So, I came here expecting to win.”

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