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Tournaments | Story | 10/1/2017

Hitters back in Kernels' semis

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Bracket-play at the 15th annual Perfect Game WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship began Sunday afternoon on ball fields spread across Iowa’s Linn and Johnson counties, and it was impossible to ignore that many of the usual suspects were in the 11-team playoff field.

Oh look, there’s the Reds Scout Team (a three-time champion and six-time runner-up). The St. Louis Pirates and Cangelosi Sparks Baseball had RSVP’d, as had the Iowa Select Black, the Chicago Scouts Association and the defending champion Minnesota (MN) Blizzard Blue.

And over there, getting ready to play what was technically a second-round game out at Kirkwood Community College’s nicely manicured field, was the Racine, Wis.-based Hitters Baseball, a program that is always competitive and always a threat to take home the Kernels Foundation crown.

“Right now, we’re playing as a team; we’re playing well and pitching well, and that’s great,” Hitters Baseball corner-infielder/right-hander Alex Binelas told PG Sunday afternoon. “This is my third year out here and every year we’ve made it through pool-play and into bracket-play, so it’s nice getting back here again.”

After winning their pool championship and outscoring their three opponents by a combined 23-9, the Hitters earned the No. 4 seed in the playoff bracket. They were pitted against No. 5-seed MASH Baseball (MN) out of Eagan, Minn., in a playoff opener and managed to dispatch the MASH unit 10-1 in six innings.

This marks the fifth time in the last six years a Hitters ballclub advanced to the final-four of the PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship. The program won the championship in 2015, and previously reached the semifinals in 2012, 2013 and 2016.

The 11-team playoff field came together late Sunday morning following the completion of pool-play. After the numbers were sorted out, the Chicago Scouts Association had grabbed the No. 1 seed by outscoring their three pool-play opponents 27-1.

The Lockport, Ill.-based Cangelosi Sparks 2018 Black grabbed the No. 2 seed (18-4) and the Cedar Rapids-based Iowa Select Black 2018 were seeded No. 3 (16-7). All three of those squads finished pool-play with 3-0-0 marks. All the second-round contests were in the books by early Sunday evening and the Monday morning semifinal field was set, with only one big upset keeping it from including the  top four seeds:

No. 3 Iowa Select Black 2018 (4-0-0) will face the No. 2 Cangelosi Sparks 2018 Black (4-0-0) and No. 4 Hitters Baseball (4-0-0) will stand face-to-face with the No. 8 MN Blizzard Blue (4-0-1). The Blizzard Blue upset the top-seeded Chicago Scouts Association, 3-2, and are on a similar path as the one they followed to the Kernels championship last year when they entered the playoffs as the No. 7 seed. A paid invitation to the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter at the end of the month is the grand prize for the tournament champion.

Binelas pitched a six-inning, six-strikeout two-hitter in Hitters Baseballl’s win over MASH Baseball, a game in which the Hitters – Binelas is usually one of the more prominent ones – rapped-out nine hits. Andrew Kim tripled, singled and drove in four runs and Jacob Campbell had a pair of doubles and drove in a run.

Earlier in the day, 2019 left-hander Jacob Wilde threw a complete game, four-hit shutout with four strikeouts in a 5-0, pool championship-clinching win over the Cangelosi Sparks 2018 White that led to the playoff berth.

“These guys compete every pitch,” Fergus said Sunday. “Jacob Wilde with an 80-pitch shutout, how can you ask for anything more out of a 2019 grad; he just pitched and it’s good. We just go out and have a little bit of fun and stay on them, and simple mistakes don’t happen, otherwise you don’t win.”

This Hitters team is led by Binelas, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound left-handed batter and right-handed thrower who is ranked No. 193 nationally and has committed to Louisville. But there is also Campbell, a 2018 ranked No. 313 who has committed to Illinois, top-500 2018 Malik Peters, a Northern Illinois commit and 2019 Trace Ferreira (Indiana State). And don’t forget about big AJ Vukovich, a 2020 ranked No. 67 nationally who has also committed to Louisville.

“We’ve been hitting the ball well and this a good mish-mash group of kids,” Fergus said. “Obviously, with Jacob Campbell, (AJ) Vukovich and (Alex) Binelas as the leaders offensively, they’ve been really good. Once again, it’s not the one inning that you win or lose, it’s the seven; you have to out-compete the other guys for seven innings.

“Obviously, this time of year it gets a little tough with homecomings and guys playing with scout teams and other teams and this and that, but if we play defense and hit the ball, we’ll be OK.”

The MASH Baseball team Hitters went up against in this playoff game was formidable in its own right, although it lacked any real star power in terms of the rankings or college commitments; 2018 left-hander/first baseman Nathaniel Peterson had the only commitment coming into Sunday but it was to Oklahoma State.

“These guys have played the game the right way the whole year,” head coach and MASH Baseball owner/director Tom Buske said Sunday. “Offensively, when we put the ball in play we’ve been aggressive on the base-paths and in our first game (of the tournament) I think we stole a couple of runs just because of how aggressive we were on the base-paths.”

It took a nifty combination of aggressive base-running, strong pitching and timely hitting for the MASH to reach the playoffs, which certainly has been a tried-and-trued recipe in the game of baseball for the last 150 years.

The MASH Baseball organization has been around since 2012 and like every other program worth its salt the people involved have focused on player development. Most of the players have been with the program throughout their high school careers, and this particular group has been together for five or six years now.

“This group is really one of our first groups that’s come up all the way through and now they’re graduating,” Buske said. “Over the last five years they’ve really learned how to play the game, so it’s fun to give them the opportunity to play against a little higher-level competition in a tournament like this and see them succeed.”

This is the second time in three years MASH Baseball sent a team to the Kernels Foundation Championship. It had a squad here and 2015 and was planning on returning last year before the Cedar River leapt out of its banks and cause extensive flooding in Cedar Rapids, and the tournament was postponed a week. The rescheduled date didn’t fit into the MASH plans, but these guys were glad to be back out here this weekend.

“This is really one of the only opportunities in the fall for our guys (to get exposure),’ Buske said. “Our first game we had 20 to 25 scouts at our game, so you really get that consistency across the board with players in this region coming to one spot: that really helps our guys.”

So, now Hitters Baseball will be playing into Monday once again at the PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship and Binelas will be making his third – and final – appearance in the semifinals. It’s been quite a ride for the young man.

“It’s been awesome and I’ve been with most of these guys throughout my high school career,” Binelas said. “They’re some of my best friends and playing for RJ is great; he’s a great guy. This is going to be my last go-around with them and it’s just been very special.”

There is no way this will be Fergus’s last go-around at the Kernels Championship:

“This is the best of the Midwest and, obviously, we want to keep our club in the upper echelon in the Midwest,” he said. “We’ve been a prominent player in Midwest baseball now for 25 years, so we want to be able to say that year after year after year, we’re going to be playing at the Kernels stadium on Monday.”

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