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Tournaments | Story | 10/23/2015

Jupiter 3-peat for Classic slugger

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

JUPITER, Fla. – A loss in its pool-play opener at the 17th annual Perfect Game WWBA World Championship Friday afternoon does nothing to diminish the close relationship the Jersey Shore-based Baseball U program has established with the event through eight straight years of attendance.

It also does nothing to alter the fact that this year’s Baseball U Bonsall Bat squad brought to Jupiter a roster brimming with top NCAA Division I-level talent that includes an intriguing prospect from New Kensington, Pa., who could potentially be an early round draft pick in the 2016 MLB June Amateur Draft.

It’s important to make clear that BU Bonsall Bat’s 6-3 loss to the Midland Redskins at the Roger Dean Stadium Complex does not automatically eliminate it from bracket-play at the 85-team PG WWBA World. The road just got rockier, is all, and the Bats are going to need the Redskins to lose their final two pool-play games to have any chance at a pool championship.

“They’re hard-nosed kids that believe on any given day they can go out and beat anyone,” Baseball U founder/general manager/head coach John Wells said Friday. “I also told them this morning that they could lose to anybody if they don’t come prepared. If on any given pitch they just worry about what they have to do with that pitch, I think they’ll be fine.”

Win or lose, Baseball U Bonsall Bats will always have top first base/outfield prospect Alex Kirilloff on its side, and that’s a comfy security blanket to have. Kirilloff is wearing a Baseball U uniform at the Roger Dean complex for the third straight year this weekend; he earned all-tournament recognition at the 2014 edition of the PG WWBA World Championship.

“I’ve really enjoyed coming down here the last two years and it never really gets old. Hopefully the third time is a charm and I do even better this year,” Kirilloff said Friday afternoon from the side of the spring training complex the St. Louis Cardinals share with the Miami Marlins.

“The third time coming down you know what to expect with all the golf carts and the scouts and everything, so I’m feeling a little more comfortable,” he said. “I think it’s helped out a lot as far as my preparation for things.”

A 6-foot-2, 195-pound left-handed swinging senior at Plum High School in Pittsburgh who has committed to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., Kirilloff is also back in the spotlight just a little over two months after grabbing headlines by winning the Home Run Challenge at the Perfect Game All-American Classic in San Diego in mid-August.

His appearance at the Classic was definitely a highlight of a summer filled with them, and he arrived in Jupiter as the No. 17-ranked overall national prospect in the class of 2016.

“Honestly, that was one of the highlights of my baseball career so far; it was a blessing to be there,” Kirilloff said Friday. “Perfect Game and everyone running it did an astounding job of putting that event together, and I thoroughly enjoyed my four days there. It was a blessing and I had a blast.”

Kirilloff was included on the Top Prospect List at the PG National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla., in mid-June; was named to the all-tournament team at the 17u PG WWBA National Championship in Emerson, Ga., in early July playing with the Baseball U Prospects; made appearances at the East Coast Pro Showcase in Tampa and the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif.; and was named to the all-tournament team at the PG WWBA Northeast Qualifier, again playing for Baseball U.

Wells started Baseball U in New Jersey back in 2006 with just one team, and the organization has grown to where it now has three franchises in Fairfield, Conn., Scranton, Pa., and Syracuse, N.Y. The teams from those three groups play separately in local tournaments but when it comes to playing in Perfect Game national tournaments, Baseball U puts together a top prospect team from all of its affiliates.

“It’s a pleasure but it’s tough getting the kids together on such quick notice,” Wells said. “… This will be there first time on the field together (in several weeks) but they’ll be ready.”

The roster features 12 prospects from the classes of 2016 and 2017 that are ranked in the top-500 nationally – 11 players have made their college commitments – with Kirilloff the kingpin at No. 17.

“There is a lot of talent with this group, and it’s obviously led by Alex Kirilloff; he’s a special player,” Wells said before beginning to drop some pretty big names. “Alex is a throwback first baseman, and when you think of those guys you think of your (Don) Mattingly’s and your (John) Olerud’s – I think he’s a cross between Olerud, Mattingly and Rod Carew.”

That’s some pretty heady company and it will take years for Kirilloff to prove himself worthy of such comparisons. On Friday afternoon he was simply trying to acquire the mindset required to step out on the field in front of hundreds of scouts sitting in golf carts and maintaining his cool.

“You get used to it and you don’t get as worked up as you use to, and you try to stay calm and take things one step at a time,” he said. “Anytime I’m playing baseball, and especially down here in Florida when it’s nice out, you’ve just got to love it and enjoy it, and count your blessings for being healthy and being able to play baseball.”

That seems to be the attitude any player that has ever slipped on a Baseball U uniform brings to the field, and Wells especially likes what he’s seen from this group.

The top 2016s in addition to Kirilloff include right-hander Frank Vesuvio from Amonk, N.Y. (No. 197, West Virginia); corner-infielder Joey Rose from Toms River, N.J. (No. 333, Oklahoma State); catcher Drew Blakely from Galesburg, Mich. (No. 413, Virginia) and left-hander Nicholas Mondak out of Watertown, Conn. (No. 482, St. John’s).

Top-500s from among the 2016s include outfielder Nathan Panzer from Westport, Conn., and right-hander/third baseman Mike Vasturia out of Medford, N.J. (both Maryland), and middle-infielder Eric Santiago from Bethlehem, Pa. (Cincinnati).

Baseball U’s top 2017s are shortstop/right-hander Benjamin Caparius from Westport, Conn. (No. 54, North Carolina); first baseman/outfielder Davis Payne from Rexford, N.Y. (No. 404, uncommitted) and left-hander Eric Heatter out of Jamesburg, N.J. (top-500, Rutgers).

“I believe (Heatter) is the best pitcher in New Jersey and even though he’s committed to Rutgers he had plenty of opportunities from a lot of (more high profile) schools,” Wells said. “He commands well … and his changeup is Bugs Bunny – he can pitch. He’s a throw-back lefty and you can just throw away the gun when he’s on the mound; he’s something special to watch.”

Those four words – “something special to watch” – provide a nice segue back to Kirilloff, who still smiles broadly when the subject of winning the PG All-American Classic Home Run Challenge is brought up. Representing the East Team, Kirilloff dropped six bombs with his final six swings during the final round held at the San Diego Padres’ Petco Park and edged West Team slugger Blake Rutherford by the count of 12 to 11.

That was a blast, and watching them go out of a big league stadium is even better; it’s something you always dream about,” Kirilloff said at the conclusion of the competition. “You just have to give glory to God for everything.”

Kirilloff hit a total of 34 home runs in the three rounds of the Challenge held at both Petco and the University of San Diego’s Fowler Park.

“It wasn’t something that I set out to win. By the grace of God, it just all fell into place,” Kirilloff said Friday. “I wasn’t really too concerned about winning, I was just trying to go out there and hit some home runs and do my best. I never really thought about winning until it was the last round … and then everything just fell into place.”

Wells found it interesting but not surprising that Kirilloff won the Home Run Challenge. He said some scouts have doubted his power potential despite that display and Wells points to an old Wade Boggs statement in which the Red Sox legend was quoted as saying he could have hit 30 home runs a season if he could have accepted being a .250 career hitter.

Wells said at this particular point in his career, Kirilloff is looking to spray the ball to all fields and take the home runs when he gets the right pitch to hit.

“The power is there – he showed that in San Diego – but there is more to Alex than just the bat,” Wells said. “He’s very knowledgeable about the game … and he’s just a pleasure to coach. I think there are great things ahead of him whether it’s in the outfield or at first base.”

Kirilloff made his commitment to Liberty relatively early and said it was “kind of nice” to put the whole recruiting process in the rearview mirror so he could just go out on the field and play relatively pressure free. But now he entered the draft conversation in a very real way, and that conversation is intensified here with nearly 1,000 scouts on the Roger Dean grounds.

“As far as the draft goes I don’t really concern myself with it,” he said. “I’m here to play baseball and anything else that can be a distraction or sideline me I try to push off and just control what I can control.”

Wells has watched one of his star pupils rise to the top of his game and takes a lot of pride in what Kirilloff has accomplished to date. Wells is very specific when it comes to the type of ballplayer he welcomes into his program, and Kirilloff fit the bill perfectly.

“I want a player that wants to get better,” Wells said. “When I was coaching in the Atlantic Collegiate League we use to get coaches that would say, ‘I’ve got a kid that batted .350,’ and I’d say, ‘Coach, give me a kid that batted .280, wants to get to the field an hour ahead of time and take extra BP.’

“I want the kid to be a good player and that’s why (college) coaches say generally that when they get a Baseball U player they know he’s going to be college-ready.”

College-ready or MLB draft-ready, it all adds up to the same thing in the end. And whatever feelings of gratitude the folks at Baseball U may have toward Kirilloff, he returns it at least two-fold.

“They’ve been great and Coach Wells has been awesome with me,” he said. “They’ve helped out a lot and I love this organization. They’ve been a great help for me and my baseball career.”

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