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Tournaments  | Story  | 10/22/2016

Playing with something to prove

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: Perfect Game

JUPITER, Fla. – Looking slender and athletic at 6-foot, 170 pounds, Florida class of 2017 prep prospect Austin Martin stepped up to the plate at mid-morning Saturday, performing in a game that had reached only the bottom of the first inning and was being played back on Cardinals Field 5 at the Roger Dean Stadium Complex.

Martin was batting in the leadoff spot for the Padres Scout Team/Chandler World squad in what was an important pool-play finale at the Perfect Game WWBA World Championship. It was a game the Padres Scout Team/Chandler World needed to win to clinch the pool championship and earn no lower than a No. 22 seed in the 32-team playoffs, which are set to begin on Sunday.

A middle-infielder from Orange Park, Fla., Martin seemed to understand every angle of the situation completely, most importantly the need to jump on the 2DSports Sun Devils early and never taking the foot off the gas. Perhaps he knew that the Sun Devils, too, needed a win to assure themselves a spot in the playoffs. To his way of thinking, there was no time to waste.

Martin drove the first pitch he saw in the at-bat on a line into leftfield, rounding first base with a leadoff single. He promptly stole second on a pick-off attempt at first and then advanced to third after tagging-up on a long fly-ball out off the bat of Obie Ricumstrict. The next hitter, Heliot Ramos, grounded out to the shortstop, but it was more than enough to let the speedy Martin sprint home with the game’s first run.

Using baseball parlance, that’s the definition of “manufacturing a run” and the Padres ST/Chandler would use eight more hits – three of them doubles – to produce seven more runs in their 8-3 victory over the Sun Devils. They advanced to bracket-play with a 3-0-0 record, a noteworthy improvement from a year ago when the two organizations – competing separately – combined to post an embarrassing 2-7-0 record at the 2015 PG WWBA World Championship.

The outcome meant the Padres outscored their three pool-play opponents by a combined 27-9, hitting .337 as a team (8 of 28 hits for extra-bases) and nine pitchers combined for a 2.67 ERA with 21 strikeouts in 21 innings of work. The outcome – and the pool championship – also proved that roughly two dozen players who arrived here from one end of the country to the other can learn to work and play together in a successful manner in a very short amount of time.

“Honestly, I’m surprised how fast we’ve come together and played as a team,” Martin said Saturday. “Off and on the field, we’re always with each other, we’re always talking, having good conversation. We’re always cheering each other; we’re always in the game. It’s just been an awesome experience.”

This team’s roster assembled over the last eight or nine months by the Padres scouting department with Florida and Puerto Rico area scouting supervisor Willie Bosque at the lead, and by Chandler World with founder/general manager/ head of baseball operations Jason Slattery taking the reins.

It was a collective effort, one spurred on by the dismal showings of Chandler Baseball (0-4-0) and the San Diego Padres Scout Team (2-3-0) in Jupiter a year ago this week. In short, both the Padres and Chandler World are here this weekend with a little something to prove: “We’re a lot better than that” they seem to be saying.

“We decided to combine our efforts to make sure we had a quality, pro-caliber team (in 2016),” Slattery said Saturday. They started targeting players that were with Chandler Baseball during the summer and with the Padres Scout Team a year ago, and then filled out the remaining roster spots using a national recruiting strategy. The result is a group as diverse as any in the tournament, with prospects coming from 10 states and Puerto Rico, with 11 Floridians and six Puerto Ricans; it’s an impressive collection.

Five 2017s that played in at least one of the three pool games are ranked in the top-225 nationally: Heliot Ramos (No. 50, Florida International, Nicholas Egnatuk (No. 78, Pittsburgh), Jan Figueroa (No. 172, FIU), Andres Santana (No. 180, FIU) and Sam Glick (No. 223, UCLA); No. 40 2018 Manny Gonzales (uncommitted) and No. 104 2019 Carson Jones (Virginia) also played.

Santana went 6-for-8 (.750) with a home run, a double, seven RBI and three runs scored in the three wins. Ramos was 4-for-10 with an RBI, four runs and three stolen bases and 2017 No. 428 D.J. Poteet (Wake Forest) went 3-for-7 (.429) with a home run, double, four RBI and four runs.

“In my high school career I’ve been to a lot of big events – the National and Junior National (showcases) – and now this is a big tournament,” Santana said Saturday. “We’re playing against a lot of good competition, and it’s very good here. I’ve been in a lot of these situations but it’s still impressive the (number) of scouts that come out and watch these players (at every game).”

The hundreds of scouts in attendance Saturday morning were there to evaluate every player on both rosters but it’s also certain that many were on hand to watch Martin – a he went for 3-for-9 (.333) with a double, three RBI and three runs in the three wins. Martin performed at the Florida Diamond Club Showcase in Lakeland earlier this month and, per numerous scouting reports, absolutely blew it up, both with the way he handled the bat and his play in the field.

“He really showed up and had a really good weekend (in Lakeland),” the Padres’ Bosque said. “He swung the bat well and the biggest thing was he made a lot of contact; a lot of hard contact. Defensively he showed the ability to play shortstop – good instincts – and he was one of the event’s better players.”

Bosque said it isn’t as if Martin showed up in Lakeland lacking credibility among the scouting community, and his top-500 national prospect ranking and commitment to Jacksonville (Fla.) University certainly shows a level of respect. But this performance surprised even him.

“It was a little nerve-racking at first; I was a little nervous going in; there was a lot of good competition out there and I knew I have to prove myself,” Martin said of the Lakeland experience. “The best part about it is I understand that when I stay relaxed is when I perform better, and I stayed relaxed the whole time and whatever happened, happened.”

Martin’s presence on this roster is certainly a welcome addition to this team, and he has just as certainly fit in seamlessly with the other players on the roster. Chandler’s Slattery said it can be a challenge getting these elite players to perform together at an elite level on relatively but insists it can be done with the right amount of effort.

First off, Slattery doesn’t believe that team necessarily needs to play together for an entire summer to develop good chemistry, although he acknowledges familiarity amongst the players usually works to the team’s advantage. With this group, they did get everyone together for a team practice and work-out, and the players and coaches spent some off-field time together so they could get better acquainted.

“We got to know each other (quickly) and we’ve got a good bond; we’re competing and we want to win,” the prospect Santana said. “We’re not playing just to get (scouted), our goal is to win the whole thing; we’ve got a lot of good players.” And, it sounds like, a lot of good people.

“The first thing we look for is character,” Slattery said of the criteria used when putting a roster together. “We want guys that can really get after it, and not just when they’re in between the white lines but the second they show up at the field; the second they show up at the hotel. We did team meals, and we have guys that showed up on time; guys that actually know what they’re here for.

“I look for guys that are great athletes with great mentality and great character and know what they’re here for,” he repeated. “These guys have shown that 100 percent.”

Bosque praised the work put in by many of the Padres’ other area scouts spread across the country’s four corners for finding the right prospects to fit into the right spots on the roster. Those scouts began by identifying the players they liked, the players they players they felt would be a good fit and most importantly, perhaps, the players they wanted to see a little bit more of – while wearing a Padres uniform.

As an area scout who rarely gets to leave Florida’s and Puerto Rico’s fertile scouting territory, Bosque also enjoys the diversity this roster offers because it allows him to scout and evaluate talented players from other parts of the country.

“We’re very fortunate to have those kids who are not just talented, but have good makeup and they’re competitors and want to go out there and win,” he said. “This group has really come together well … and to have that chemistry is huge.”

The Padres Scout Team/Chandler World will learn its playoff seeding later Saturday night when pool-play concludes. By the time they take the field on Sunday, most of these top prospects will be fairly used to seeing the scouts’ golf carts circling each field at Roger Dean five or six deep and feel a deep sense of satisfaction knowing each one of those carts’ occupants are there to watch them play.

“None of (the attention) really bothers me because with my game I like to have fun,” Martin said. “At the end of the day we’re playing a game, so I don’t want to let all of this get to my head and mess me up and get too stressed-out about it.

“I did come in here with expectations,” he concluded. “I just want to prove myself and show my abilities and my skills. I came out here with the mindset that I’m going to go all-out 110 percent on and off the field. So, yeah, I did come here with something to prove.”

Just like the Padres Scout Team and Chandler World Baseball.