All American Game | Story | 7/20/2016

All-American makes PGCBL history

Blake Dowson        
Photo: Perfect Game

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – 2015 Perfect Game All-American Jeff Belge landed in Amsterdam, New York this summer as possibly the most anticipated athlete to ever play in the league.

For one, he’s a young area kid growing up less than two hours away in Syracuse. But being a local kid doesn’t automatically make the stadium buzz every time you step on the mound like it does when Belge toes the rubber. It starts to buzz when you are a top-50 recruit in your class with a fastball that touches 95 from the left side, and many people thought you would be playing minor league ball this summer.

If Belge doesn’t like the hype — he’s never shown or said anything that would make you think he doesn’t — he did nothing to help himself out when he threw the first four innings of a combined no-hitter against the Oneonta Outlaws on July 12.

The no-no was only the third in the history of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League, now in its sixth year of play, and makes the buzz around Belge sound a whole lot louder. The crazy (and scary, for hitters) thing is that Belge didn’t even feel all that great on the bump on that historic night.

“I didn’t have my best stuff that night,” Belge said. “I was inconsistent with the strike zone, my curveball was pretty loopy, and my fastball didn’t have the same top end behind it. I actually had to battle through that start and find a way to get guys out. I got a lot of groundballs, and I tried to stay away from the middle of zone since my stuff wasn’t great.”

Making his first start of the summer, Belge wasn’t allowed to finish what he had started, getting lifted after four innings of work in the first of two seven-inning games as part of a doubleheader that night.

He said he knew he had been throwing up a lot of zeroes on the scoreboard, but wasn’t quite sure whether he had given up a hit or not. When he was informed during the game that he in fact hadn’t surrendered a hit, it made him dig his nails into the top railing on the bench a little deeper.

“It was a little [nerve racking] watching from the bench,” Belge said. “But I knew the guy coming in was good, guys have a tough time hitting him. He throws pretty hard, and when he’s on he’s tough to figure out.”

That guy was Tim Naughton, a righthander from NC State that holds a 4-1 record on the year for Amsterdam and a 1.87 ERA. His final three innings of work that day earned him a nine-out save, one of his three saves this summer.

Naughton was the right guy to shut down an offensive to secure a no-hitter, and Belge was the right guy to work the first four innings of no-hit ball.

After all, to that point in the season Belge hadn’t shown signs of anything else. The no-hit start was his third appearance of the year (the other two were in relief) and he was yet to surrender a hit. He had worked 3 1/3 innings of hitless work in relief, and the four innings against the Outlaws moved it to 7 1/3 innings.

And if you take into consideration what Belge has gone through in his young career, it makes what he’s doing all the more impressive.

When he was just nine years old, he was struck in the eye by a piece of shale while skipping rocks with his cousin, rupturing the cornea in his right eye. The injury required surgery, around 20 stitches, and his sight in that eye.

The recovery process was long and difficult, but the major setback led to an even bigger comeback, and by the time Belge was a high school junior he was rated as one of the best pitchers in his class and a possible first-day draft pick — until something all too familiar happened again.

Goofing around with one of his teammates last summer in a hotel between games in Atlanta, Belge got poked in the same eye he had been blinded in eight years earlier. The eye basically folded, as he describes it, and another surgery and stitches were required.

One of the first questions he asked out of surgery when he was nine years old was whether he would be able to play baseball, the game he loves, ever again. The answer from the doctor wasn’t an optimistic one back then, and it continued to motivate him through his second injury.

“The first time it happened, the doctor said he didn’t know if I could play again,” Belge said. “But I told him I was going to play again. I told myself [the injury] wasn’t going to stop me. I was going to keep working to adjust to the different lifestyle. I wanted to make the most out of it.

“I put in a lot of work to be able to play with one eye. But really, it helped me in the long run. I developed my work ethic when I was nine, and that has helped me in my career.”

It takes a strong kid to have the character and determination to take a life-altering injury head on at nine years old. It takes a special person to have it happen twice to them, and continue to battle through it.

That heart and passion, combined with his talented left arm, landed him on the mound on July 12 in Amsterdam with a chance to make history.

And through four innings of work in which he struck out four and lowered his season ERA to 1.23, he made it clear he has his full sight set on making a career out of this game he wouldn’t give up at nine years old.

That journey will lead him to St. John’s University in the fall, as he enrolls for his freshman season with the Red Storm. But for now, he’s happy to be playing in the PGCBL, improving his game against some good competition and meeting guys from all over the country.

It’s definitely a great experience playing against good college competition. It will prepare me well for the coming season,” Belge said. “I kind of know what it’s like, how different the speed of the game is.

“I love it here. We have a bunch of great guys on the team, and we all get along really well. We always get good crowds, and we have a good atmosphere. It’s a good time.”

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