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Showcase | Story | 6/19/2017

Kelenic all-in at PG National

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – It wasn’t all that long ago that any thought regarding the quality of baseball being played at the high school level in Wisconsin followed the line that the young prospects in the Badger State would never be able to compete alongside their brethren from the south because of limited opportunities to get outdoors.

And then, indoor facilities began sprouting up in the state’s cities and towns. And then, top prep prospects Nathan Mikolas from Kenosha became a third-round pick in the 2012 MLB June Amateur Draft, and 2015 Perfect Game All-Americans Gavin Lux from Kenosha and Ben Rortvedt out of Verona went in the first and second rounds, respectively, in the 2016 draft.

At this year’s draft, former Wisconsin high school players Jeren Kendall (Holmen) and Dalton Varsho (Marshfield) were selected in the first and second rounds after spending three years at Louisville and UW-Milwaukee, respectively.

“Taken as a whole and being a player up in Wisconsin, when people say we’re at a disadvantage, we look at that and think, ‘Thank you for saying that, and we’re going to show you that we’re not,’” sensational 2018 outfielder Jarred Kelenic from Waukesha told PG over the weekend. “We walk around with a chip on our shoulder and that’s how we play the game.”

Kelenic, an athletic 6-foot-1, 196-pound top prospect who will be a senior in the fall at Waukesha West High School and has committed to Louisville, brought that chip to jetBlue Park on Saturday to take part in this year’s Perfect Game National Showcase. The event annually puts on display the talents of 280 of the top rising seniors for the benefit of the national scouting community.

The 17-year-old Kelenic entered the National as the No. 3-ranked overall prospect (No. 1 outfielder) in PG’s class of 2018 national prospect rankings, and realized right away that this was the place he needed to be as soon as he received the invitation.

“This is one of the biggest showcases of the year, and with all the exposure we have (with the scouts) in the stands – and there are a lot of college guys here, too – if you can boost your numbers up here, that can help you when they put it on your (PG prospect) profile.” he said.

There was no time to waste when it came time to take care of business at the National, and Kelenic jumped right in. He ran a 6.57-second 60-yard dash (tied for 9th-best at the event with four teams still having to workout) and threw 96 mph from the outfield (t-2nd). After his batting practice session, a PG scout reported:

Jarred Kelenic makes many aspects of the game look deceptively easy, and one of them is hitting the ball hard. He took an under-control round with hard contact around the field, while still showing his big plus-power at times.”

The National Showcase is the 11th PG event Kelenic has attended and his third PG showcase. He earned inclusion on the Top Prospect List at both the 2016 PG Junior National Showcase here in Fort Myers and the 2016 PG Underclass All-American Games in San Diego in his two previous go-arounds.

“In a showcase environment when you run your 60 and throw from the outfield and hit and do all the other stuff, you ultimately want to be the best player you can be,” Kelenic said of his mindset coming in. “It may sound selfish, but I think everybody here, when we do these events, we want to perform to the best of our abilities and we want to be better than anybody else here.

“On the flip-side of that, when you play games out here you play to win; that’s the biggest thing. I have the same attitude at a showcase as I do at a tournament: I play to win; I don’t like losing.”

Waukesha West plays a Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) summer schedule, so Kelenic isn’t a part of his high school team. He instead plays spring and summer seasons for R.J. Fergus with the Racine, Wis.-based Hitters National Baseball Club, and played at last October’s PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., with the Chicago Scouts Association.

Hitters Baseball Academy features a 44,000 square-foot indoor facility with 16 batting cages, four pitching mounds, a major league sized turf infield and a 2,300 square-foot strength training area, according to its website.

“It’s got everything a baseball player needs,” Kelenic said. “Especially when you’re up north like that and it gets cold and you can’t play outside, it’s just something that can really help us.” When asked what it’s like playing for Fergus, Kelenic smiled and said, “He pushes me to the limit (but) if you can play for R.J., you can play for anybody.”

As a rising sophomore, he was named to the all-tournament team and earned a Most Valuable Player award while playing for Rawlings Hitters Navy at the 2015 PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Last fall, Kelenic was a member pf the USA Baseball 18u National Team that won the championship at the Pan American Games in Monterrey, Mexico. According to an online report, he hit a two-run home run in a title game victory over Cuba and was named Team USA’s Most Valuable Player. That might have been his crowning achievement to date.

Kelenic will turn 18 in a month, and in a face-to-face conversation he presents a confident and mature demeanor – he manages to pull off the neat trick of appearing both relaxed and intense at the same time – that belies his age.

He told PG that when he comes into an event like the PG National Showcase or is performing on the big stages offered by USA Baseball and at the Area Code Games, he feels like his performance level is important only to a certain extent; it goes far beyond that.

He is, for instance, playing on the Black team here at the PG National with a roster that boasts the talents of four of the top six-ranked prospects in the country, including himself. His teammates include No. 1 right-hander Kumar Rocker from Watkinsville, Ga., No. 5 righty Ethan Hankins from Cumming Georgia and No. 6 catcher Will Banfield from Lawrenceville, Ga. Getting to know young men like that is what’s important to Kelenic.

“It’s more about the relationships you’re going to build,” he said. “Someday, our baseball careers – and this goes for everybody in this dugout – is going to come to an end. So, if we can come out of here with 10 or 15 more friendships, those are going to last a lifetime. I look at it like, just getting to play with other people and getting to know other people, that’s huge.”

Even before Kelenic arrived in Southwest Florida, he knew that many of the people who would be watching him perform would arrive with very high expectations regarding his performance, but he also knows other people’s expectations pale in comparison to his own. Any limits he puts on himself are, in his words, “higher than the moon” and that’s what’s made him the elite ballplayer he’s become.

He looked back on his past TPL showcase experiences to provide an example. He said if were to come out and run a 6.6-second 60-yard dash, he wanted his next 60 to be a 6.5; if he went 3-for-4 in one of the showcase games, the next game he would fully expect to go 4-for-4. It’s all about getting better.

“It’s just a matter of taking it one day at a time,” Kelenic said. “It’s a process for me just as it is for everybody else, and I think if you slow the game down and approach it one pitch, one play at a time, it will better you as a player. Throughout my career that’s what I’ve done, take it one pitch at a time. Everybody likes to slow the game down because it makes things easier.

“And I try not to be too hard on myself, too,” he continued. “As soon as you can learn how to slow the game down and then learn how to have fun, that’s when you know you’re going to be at your best.”

Learning how to do that – how, in fact, to slow the game down in one’s mind – is what sets elite prospects apart from the good, everyday player. Just continuing to learn new things every day is essential to a prospect becoming a better ballplayer and a better teammate.

When Kelenic arrives at a showcase or a tournament where he’s playing with a new set of teammates, the instinct to learn takes over immediately. He makes every effort to get to know those he is not familiar with and tries to get a sense of their likes and dislikes. If a player expects to be a team leader, he’d better know what his teammates like and don’t like, or the team’s chemistry will ultimately suffer.

When asked if there is any one person who has most impacted his baseball career or has most influenced his style of play, Kelenic was emphatic in his response:

“I get that question a lot, and I like to take my game from many different people,” he said. “I don’t like to (pattern) it after just one person because nobody’s going to play the game like me and I’m not going to play the game like anybody else. I take things from a lot of different people and kind of mix it into one thing, and that makes me unique.”

Kelenic’s desire to one day become a Louisville Cardinal started very early, even in this day of middle school-aged prospects announcing their commitments. He was a trip with his family when he was in seventh grade and they spent some time in Louisville, and fell in love with the city immediately. He remembered thinking at the time that if Louisville and head coach Dan McDonnell decided to recruit him, it was going to be next to impossible to turn the offer down.

“They get the most out of their players; they really know how to develop them,” Kelenic said. “One guy was Corey Ray (5th overall pick 2016 MLB draft) who was a draft prospect when he was in high school and he goes to college and becomes a top-five pick. It’s just a positive environment all the way through (the program), successful team, great coaches, great education – I love everything about it.”

He’s able to speak with Coach McDonnell quite often and knows him to be a perfectionist, and recognizes that’s one of the many reasons his teams are so successful year-in and year-out. As this is written, the Cardinals are still very much alive at the College World Series in Omaha.

“(McDonnell) demands excellence, and that’s what you need in a coach,” he said. “He has his moments when he’ll laugh and have a good time but then when it’s time for business he’s all business. You have to play the game hard or you’re not going to play, and I like that.”

And as for all those high school-aged baseball players up in Wisconsin, Kelenic isn’t worried about their future. It seems certain the state will continue to crank-out early round draft picks and, in fact, it would surprise absolutely no one if Kelenic becomes the next Badger State first-rounder.

“I think it’s definitely getting better every year,” he said of the state-of-affairs in his home state. “There are multiple organizations now that are starting to build these indoor facilities and turf fields are huge now up in Wisconsin. I’m friends with a couple those high-profile guys who were fortunate to get signed and go the professional route. I just try to go out and play as hard as I can every day.”

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