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Tournaments  | Story  | 10/23/2016

Playoff friends, foes and fun

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: Perfect Game

JUPITER, Fla. – The early round playoff pairings at the Perfect Game WWBA World Championship can sometimes make for very strange bedfellows. Or, in other instances, very familiar ones.

One of the 16 round-of-32 bracket games played late Sunday morning at the Roger Dean Stadium Complex featured a contest between the No. 6-seeded Twins Scout Team/Scorpions and the No. 27 Central Florida Gators, two organizations based in the Orlando area, - Altamonte Springs to be exact (Scorpions Baseball is based in Altamonte Springs but the base of operations for the Twins Scout Team/Scorpions is listed as West Palm Beach).

The fact they matched-up in the playoffs’ first round was totally the luck of the draw, the result of the carefully designed seeding process. And in a 32-team playoff field, the Nos. 6 and 27 seeds are going to be paired together every time.

“It’s weird that we come to Jupiter expecting to play teams from all over the country and you end up matching up with a guy that’s in your backyard, essentially,” Scorpions Baseball owner/general manager/manager Matt Gerber said before the Florida squads squared-off on Cardinals Field 3. “There’s a lot of familiarity between the two teams, which can be good or bad, honestly.”

The Twins ST/Scorpions arrived at the No. 6 seed by winning all three of its pool-play games by a combined score of 13-4 while the Gators were relegated to No. 27 because they suffered a loss during pool-play and only gained entry into the playoffs due to a new format adopted this year.

At past PG WWBA World Championships, the 85-team field was divided into 17, five-team pools, each team played four pool games and after a play-in game 16 teams advanced to the playoffs. This year, the 88 teams were placed in 22 four-team pools, each team played three pool games, and the 22 pool champions and 10 pool runners-up – wild cards – advanced to the expanded 32-team playoffs.

“With the group we have we’re very talented, but we’re also very young and inexperienced, and this is the first time for a lot of these guys playing in this kind of setting,” Central Florida Gators manager Joe Mercadante said pregame Sunday. “The big thing we always talk about is every game is the same; it doesn’t change. Regardless of the competition or the situation, we’re still going to play our game.

“We didn’t do that when we lost to a good East Cobb team in pool-play but we bounced back and responded and played well against the Minnesota Blizzard,” he continued. “Today is just another ballgame and it doesn’t matter what they’re wearing on the other side. We have to go out there and just execute pitches, give good at-bats and play defense like we always do.”

The Twins ST/Scorpions struggled at the plate in their three pool-play wins, hitting only .211 as a team and averaging just over four runs per game, which happens at an event where just about every pitcher that toes the rubber is an ace.

Quite a few of those aces are the Scorpions’ staff: Gerber used 12 pitchers during pool-play and they combined to allow only three earned runs in 21 innings (1.00 ERA) on 13 hits while striking out 29 and walking nine.

“We’ve always kind of done it this way, honestly. It’s all pre-scripted – this is how many innings you’re going to throw – and arm care is important to our program,” Gerber said. “Doing it this way, out of the 12 arms we threw (in pool-play) 11 of them are available today. … The crazy thing about this team is it’s really more of an offensive team than a pitching team and we just haven’t hit in the first three games.

“But baseball is a game that’s meant to be played over time, so it’s hard to tell over three games … and when you’re facing good arms that’s what happens sometimes.”

On the flip-side, the young Gators hit .305 while also averaging just more than four runs per game, and five of their 25 hits went for extra bases. Mercadante used eight pitchers in the three games, and they combined to give up seven earned runs on 11 hits in 19 innings (2.58 ERA) with 22 strikeouts and six walks.

In Central Florida’s tournament opener, a 4-0 win over the Dulin Dodgers and No. 69-ranked Vanderbilt commit/left-hander Hugh Fisher, three Gators pitchers – Matt Leberatore, Bret Neilan and Mason Denaburg – combined on an 11-strikeout, one-hitter with just one walk. Gerber knew what his team was going to be up against Sunday morning.

“In this tournament, you’re playing a good team every time out and you’re pretty much facing a good arm every time out, so there’s no easy games,” Gerber said. “We were lucky enough to go 3-0 but in the past if you lost a one-run game to a really good team, you were done, so I really like the format. Our opponent today (the Gators), it happened to them where they lost a real tough game in pool-play but they were able to move on, and here we are matching up with them.”

This first-round playoff game pitted two of Florida’s finest travel ball teams against one another. Many of the players on this Twins Scout Team/Scorpions roster were members of the Scorpions’ team that was ranked No. 5 in PG’s final 2016 17u National Travel Team Rankings. This Central Florida Gators team, a very young team with nothing but 2018s and 2019s on the roster, finished ranked No. 1 in the 16u National Rankings.

But the relationship between the two organizations goes beyond wins and losses on the field. Gerber and Mercadante are friends with strong working and personal relationships who only wish the best for one another.

“I don’t even know if you’d call it a rivalry. It’s more of a friendly thing,” Mercadante said. “Matt and I are very, very close friends and we have a lot of respect for each other and we always like to see each other do well. Unfortunately, we have to play each other this early in the tournament but at the same time we know we’re going to get a good ballgame that both of us are very excited about playing.”

The friendship between Mercadante and Gerber goes back several years to when Mercadante was the recruiting coordinator at the University of Miami. They became so close that Gerber even helped play the role of “match-maker” when it came to introducing Mercadante to his wife – the two men’s wives were best friends in high school.

“Joe is at our office every single day working with us – he helps with some of the other programs that we do – and, obviously, he has a very, very talented group,” Gerber said.

No one on the Roger Dean Stadium Complex grounds could have predicted how this game would play out except, perhaps, Mercadante and Gerber, who knew fully well the quality of the arms they were going to march out to the mound on this sunny and breezy morning.

The Twins ST/Scorpions started Jack Leftwich, a 2017 left-hander who is ranked No. 58 nationally and has committed to Florida. All he did was deliver five hitless, scoreless innings with four strikeouts and two walks before handing the ball over to Ryan Dease, a top-500 2017 righty and U. of Central Florida commit; Dease also didn’t allow a hit or a run while pitching the sixth and seventh, striking out four and walking one. The Gators did not have a hit through seven innings of play.

Out of the dugout on the other side of the field, Mercadante decided to start Denaburg, a 2018 righty who is ranked 12th nationally and who, like Leftwich, has committed to Florida. He worked the first 3 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing three hits, striking out four and walking one before giving way to Liberatore, a 2018 lefty ranked No. 86 who has committed to Arizona; he went 1 2/3 innings without allowing a run on one hit with four strikeouts and a walk.

Connor Thurman, an uncommitted 2018 righty ranked 142nd nationally, sent the scoreless tie into extra innings by throwing 1 2/3 shutout innings after taking over for Liberatore. The tie-breaker system that starts each inning with one out and the bases loaded was then implemented, which renders any additional pitching stats useless.

The Gators finally got a hit in the top of the eighth, a three-run double from Connor Ollio in the top of the eighth that gave them a 3-0 lead, but the Scorpions tied it back up with three of their own in the bottom of the frame. After a scoreless ninth, Central Florida scored what proved to be the winning run in a 4-3 victory on a bases-loaded walk. Game over.

“Obviously, that line-up is one of the best in the country,” Denaburg said of facing the Scorpions. “I was just trying to keep them off-balance and not throw the same pitch too many times and just execute and keep them guessing in a lot of counts, no matter what; I had all my stuff working today.”

He also enjoyed the individual match-up with Leftwich, a long-time friend: “It’s nice battling with Jack because we’re going to be teammates soon,” he said of his fellow future Florida Gator. “We want each other to do good and he was just amazing today. I just have fun with it; it’s so much fun playing against the best competition in the country.”

It was a long, exhausting first round matchup between two great teams, two great organizations and two great friends. It’s cliché, to be sure, but it was one of those games where it was a shame somebody had to lose. But the overall experience trumps the winning and losing.

“This is the best; this is phenomenal,” Gerber said. “Perfect Game does a great job with this event the change that was made to the (playoff) format was incredible this year; I think all the teams are really appreciative of it. It rewards good play at an event like this when you have so many good teams, and having the opportunity to play in front of the total amount of scouts that are here, you’re not going to find that anywhere else.”

Mercadante has the luxury of knowing he should be bringing just about his entire team back here next year.

“We got together before the first game and I told them to just take a second, look around, see all the golf carts, the great arms you’re seeing on the pitcher’s mound and the great players you’re going to play against, and told them to enjoy the heck out of it,” Mercadante said.

“This is an experience not many guys in amateur baseball get to do … and we’re not here to play a couple of games and get out, we’re here to play for as long as we can, for sure.”

Double the field, double the fun

As is always the case at the PG WWBA World Championship, there was drama aplenty to be witnessed during the early rounds of the playoffs on Sunday, even more than ever this year with the playoff field doubled from 16 teams in previous years to 32 this year.

By the time the rounds of 32 and 16 games had been played, the remaining eight teams in the Sunday night’s quarterfinal field provided a national snapshot not seen in recent years, and one also devoid of the three-time defending champion Evoshield Canes, based in Virginia.

Among those final eight teams, seven states were identified as bases of operation. Surprisingly, perhaps, the state with two quarterfinalists was California with No. 1-seed GBG Marucci (5-0-0) and No. 29 CBA Marucci (4-1-0).

The other quarterfinalists were the No. 25 Midland Redskins (4-1-0), Ohio; No. 12 Dirtbags (4-0-1), North Carolina; No. 18 Team Elite Prime (4-1-0), Georgia; No. 26 Tri-State Arsenal Prime (4-1-0), New Jersey; No. 19 AZ T-Rex Rawlings (4-1-0), Arizona; and the No. 27 Central Florida Gators (4-1-0) who went on to beat Baseball Northwest out of Washington by a 4-2 count after getting past the Twins Scout Team/Scorpions.

The Canes, an organization that had sent teams into the semifinals at this tournament five of the last six years, were seeded 13th and got past Team Citius, 4-3, in their playoff opener Sunday. Their championship run was officially closed with a 6-1 loss to CBA Marucci in the round-of-16.