GOODYEAR, Ariz. – With a pool championship and a spot in the playoffs already in their back pocket before the beginning of play Saturday at the Perfect Game/EvoShield Upperclass National Championship, the CAB Soldiers could have chosen to collectively take the morning off.
They won both their pool-play games Friday and with only one game remaining against winless Nevada Jays Baseball, even a loss couldn’t keep them out of bracket-play. But by outscoring its two Saturday opponents by a combined 22-2, the Soldiers had positioned themselves nicely for a very favorable seed in Sunday’s playoffs, which can make a world of difference in a 22-team bracket.
“We can’t take a game off, especially this one. A 3-seed compared to a 10-seed is a big difference,” 2017 top-500 middle-infielder/right-handed pitcher Bradley Norton said before Saturday’s first-pitch on the Cleveland Indians’ side of the Goodyear Ballpark Complex.
“Getting that afternoon game tomorrow instead of that early game (is big) and then being able to save our (pitching) arms for the big games that matter. … We just need to have the mindset to come out here and get (stuff) done.”
Only around half of the 88 teams playing in the PG/Evo Upper played two of their three pool games on Friday and an even smaller percentage went 2-0 and had a playoff berth secured regardless of the outcome of its third game.
It’s a situation that opens all kind of doors for a coaching staff, which finds itself afforded the luxury of setting up its pitching rotation in a way that can benefit a deep playoff run. But no team, and certainly none of 88 playing at this event, wants to lose a game. It’s not in the players’ or coaches’ DNA.
“They have to still be focused; they have to play the game the right way,” CAB Solders head coach Amador Delgado said Saturday. “It’s not really about seeding or anything like that. For us, it’s just respecting the game and playing hard – they’ve got to play hard and they know. Now we’re playing for Sunday because now it’s the playoffs; it’s elimination.”
With the exception of about a half-dozen players that are new to the team for this tournament, there is a core group that have been together since they were around 10 years old; event the new guys were familiar with one another through high school and travel ball experiences.
This CAB Soldiers roster is very Northern California-centric, with California Academy Baseball (CAB) based in Rancho Cordova, which is part of the Sacramento Metropolitan Area. The players come from San Jose, Petaluma and Sacramento, and are primarily high school seniors with four or five top juniors added to the mix.
The original Soldiers’ rosters listed top 2017s like third baseman Spencer Torkelson (ranked No. 173 nationally; Arizona State commit), right-hander Griffin McGarry (No. 209; Virginia), first baseman Blake Diggle (No. 334; uncommitted) and Norton (top-500, Nevada); only Norton played in all three games, McGarry played in one and Torkelson and Diggle did not play at all.
The top 2018 on the roster is left-hander/utility Patrick Wicklander (No. 165, Dallas Baptist), who did play in all three games but has not yet pitched; he is ranked the No. 18 left-hander in the 2018 national class.
The Soldiers hit .469 (30-for-64) as a team in their three pool-play wins, with eight doubles among their 30 hits; five players that batted in all three games hit .429 or better. 2017s Chris Troye (UC Santa Barbara), Patrick Smith (Purdue) and Kyle Riveron (uncommitted) all doubled twice; Troye drove in five runs and scored three, Smith was at four and four and Riveron scored four times.
Delgado used six pitchers to work the 16 innings, and they combined to give up two earned runs (0.86 ERA) on 13 hits with 17 strikeouts and six walks.
With so many 2017s on the roster, Delgado told his players to treat this tournament as their last hurrah with PG, although many could return for the 2017 18u PG/MLK Championships in January. After that, the seniors will play their final season of high school baseball and then more than like head off to their respective college’s summer programs for incoming freshman.
“We have a few new players for this weekend, but the chemistry – the dugout was incredible (Friday),” Delgado said. “They’ve known each other and I brought all together at the age of 16 or 17, and it’s just been a pleasure. I was telling the (other) coaches, this is going to be fun this weekend.”
Norton is one of the new guys: “The whole team has been super, super welcoming; it’s been great playing with them,” he said. “I practiced with them a little bit over the summer, and the coaching staff and the kids – everyone’s been awesome.”
Delgado brought a CAB Soldiers team here last weekend for the PG/EvoShield Underclass National Championship and it impressed observers from start to finish. The Soldiers Under breezed through pool-play, outscoring it three opponents by a combined 18-0 to earn the playoffs’ No. 2 seed.
After a win in a second-round game to open bracket-play, CAB topped the SACSN National Team, 5-2, in the quarterfinals before falling to eventual champion Phenom Signature, 10-2, in the semis. That loss was bittersweet for Delgado, who was a member of Joe Keller’s Phenom staff in 2015.
Wicklander and middle-infielder/right-hander Nathan Medrano are the only 2018 CAB Soldiers that played in last week’s PG/Evo Under and this week’s PG/Evo Upper: “It’s been a good experience. I’ve been doing a lot of Perfect Game (events) all summer but the last two weekends have been really good,” Wicklander said of the back-to-back weekends in the desert. “The competition is always great out here.”
He then seemed to indicate he’s really enjoying his time this weekend playing up with the older guys: “With the upperclass, it’s a bunch of us that get together and we hate to lose. We just like playing together; we don’t care what really happens, we’ll always have each other’s back,” he said. “Especially with me being a junior and lot of these guys being seniors, it’s a lot of fun. We’re looking to play in the championship on Monday.”
Soldiers Baseball is actually a separate entity from California Academy Baseball but the two came together here in the desert with Delgado – who joined the Soldiers program three years ago -- taking charge of the upper and underclass teams.
Delgado explained that the goal of both programs is to bring in some of the best ballplayers primarily from Northern California and teach them how to go about their business the right way. He surrounds himself with the best coaches he can find and as a group all they ask of the players is that they give them two hours of dedicated work during the games and have doing it.
“This is something I want to do for long time, are these types of events,” Delgado said. “It’s having the boys get together and facing the best competition in the nation. Especially in the summertime when they are out of school, that’s when they’re facing the top guys, the guys that move on. These kids can finally guide themselves to where they want to be and where they need to be.
“And all I’m doing is Perfect Game events,” he quickly added. “The facilities are great, the umpires are great, (PG officials) run a good tournament. … I’m a Perfect Game guy for life.”
The CAB Soldiers had a confident air about them as they prepped for their final pool-play game Saturday. They knew a win wasn’t essential in terms of the playoffs but they also knew it was very important in terms of seeding.
“We know that we can’t give up a whole lot of runs so we get a better seed. Playing two games (on Sunday) is a lot better than three, especially in the Arizona heat,” Wicklander said.
Nevada Jays Baseball jumped to a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first but the Soldiers came back with two in the fourth, one in the fifth and two and the seventh on their way to the 5-1 victory. Riveron, Troye and Jake Cosgrove all doubled; Riveron added a pair of singles, Troye one. Medrano, the 2018 right-hander, scattered six hits over five innings, giving up the one run while striking out four and walking one.
With Saturday being the final day of pool-play and with the pool championship already secured before the morning’s first pitch, Delgado couldn’t have asked for anything better than the 10:30 a.m. start time. It meant his players could leave the ball fields and head back to their hotel, which sits near a fully equipped shopping mall. They could go grab some lunch, hang out at the mall and even catch a movie if they’d like. It’s a close-knit group.
“(Friday night), after we played our second game, we told the boys they were on their own – no supervision – as long as you guys are back in your hotel rooms by 10:30. Show us that respect and if you guys can do that we’re going to trust you guys,” Delgado said. “What was funny was we (the coaches) saw them at the mall and they were all together. That kind of tells me these guys play for each other.”
By outscoring its three pool-play foes by a combined 27-3, the Soldiers had certainly put themselves in position for a very favorable playoff seed. And these guys want to make a deep run and join other the other elite California programs like CBA, GBG, Southern California Bombers and San Diego Show that have performed so well at this event throughout its history. When the playoff bracket was announced late Saturday night, the Soldiers had, indeed, earned the No. 3-seed.
“With us being seniors, we want to help out (the coaching staff) really get our name up there with the top programs,” Norton said. “I know we have the coaching staff, we have the talent on this team and on the younger team to really do something special. We’re all taking pride in the fact that we’re going to go here and we’re going to win this thing and we’re going to get this team on the map and at the top of the charts.”