Tournaments : : Story
Saturday, October 7, 2017

A 'Breakthrough' at Under World

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game


FORT MYERS, Fla. – The MLB Breakthrough Series returned to the Perfect Game WWBA Underclass World Championship for a second straight year this weekend, and after its first two pool games to open play at the PG national championship tournament, it looked like this squad was ready to contend for a title.

The team the MLB Breakthrough Series – which identifies New York City as its base of operations –  brought to last year’s WWBA Under World surprised many when it won its pool and advanced to the playoffs at the 200-plus team event.

This weekend, carrying a 25-man roster that is loaded with highly ranked prospects from the prep classes of 2019 and 2020, the Breakthrough boys blasted Ohio-based Team CBC, 19-3 in three innings to open play on Thursday, and then tripped-up Georgia-based 643 DP Sterling, 9-1 in six innings on Friday.

“For us, we bring so many kids down, we want them all to get a chance to play,” Series director Del Matthews said Friday before the team faced 643 DP at the CenturyLink Sports Complex, the spring training home of the Minnesota Twins. “The more that we win the more of an opportunity there is for everyone to play, but clearly the kids that we have are getting better and better.”

Matthews is MLB’s Senior Director of Baseball Development and has managed the Breakthrough Series and its companion, the Elite Development Invitational, for the past two years. The MLB Breakthrough Series was established in 2008 in a joint effort with USA Baseball. An early press release with its “mission statement” read:

“This unique program focuses on developing the player on and off the field through seminars, mentorship, game-play, scout evaluations, video coverage and the highest level of instruction, all while providing a platform for the players to perform for scouts and collegiate coaches.”

That declaration makes the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship a perfect fit for the program, with the different venues in Lee and Charlotte counties overflowing with college coaches and recruiters during the tournament’s five-day run.

“I think this is a great event,” Matthews said. “This time of year, the college coaches are able to come out and see some guys that maybe they followed during the summer and can now keep an eye on them, so I think it’s an opportune time. The (MLB) playoff baseball is going on right now and a lot of kids are watching the games at night, so baseball is top-of-mind.

“With Perfect Game organizing something like this, I think it’s great to be able to come down here and have a chance to play some good baseball.”

It’s difficult to determine which is more impressive: the MLB Breakthrough Series team’s roster or its coaching staff. This year’s staff consists of a nice mix of former major league players, coaches and managers, including Jerry Manual, Junior Spivey, Bob Didier, Tom “Flash” Gordon, Luis Alicea and Ty Waller.

“We’ve got excellent coaches … that are here and they’re pouring (everything) into these kids,” Matthews said. “You see the results every day, whether it’s in the cage or whether it’s back at the hotel or whether it’s in study hall, just talking baseball, talking the game.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Gordon was at PG events helping both coach and mentor his son, Nick Gordon, who developed into a first-round draft pick of the Twins (No. 5 overall, 2014). In an interesting side-note, Nick Gordon and the Twins’ No. 1 overall selection in this past June’s MLB Amateur Draft, Royce Lewis, were on hand to watch the MLB Breakthrough Series team play Friday. Both Nick Gordon and Lewis were PG All-Americans before their senior year in high school; Tom Gordon was busy taking it all in.

“There’s nothing like it, because even when I was doing the travel circuit and having those teams, it’s so much fun, and yet you can still learn,” he said about being around young players. “I’m still trying to learn how to become a better coach and these kids make it exciting for me.”

“These kids” are exciting in and of themselves. Texas right-hander/shortstop Sanson Faltine III (ranked No. 40 nationally, a Texas commit) and Georgia middle-infielder Nasim Nunez (No. 79, Clemson) lead the solid group of 2019 prospects.

Louisiana outfielder/right-hander Damon Fountain (No. 132, uncommitted), Louisiana right-hander Antione Harris (No. 186, New Orleans), Georgia outfielder/left-hander Michael Harris II (No. 214, uncommitted) and California first baseman/right-hander Daylen Xavier Carter (No. 273, UCLA) also rank among the top 2019s. California outfielder/right-hander Ty Collins is the top-ranked 2020 on the roster (No. 173, uncommitted).

“To be down here with this (team) means a lot, just to get the experience of working with some of the major league coaches,” Faltine III said. “Especially with me pitching-wise, with Tom Gordon, he was in the pros for a long time. You can get the insights of what he’s been through and what he sees in me to help improve myself.”

Added Nunez: “It’s an honor; all the coaches are amazing and the players are wonderful. They really help us a lot and I respect what they’re trying to do with this, and everyone is just amazing. I know a lot of my teammates really look forward to it. It’s a fun experience traveling, staying at a hotel, bonding and meeting new people; it’s wonderful.”

This roster is constructed and filled with young players that have experience in the various MLB youth academies now spread across the country, but the lion’s share of the kids that are here this weekend come from the MLB Elite Development Invitational (EDI) that is held annually in Vero Beach, Fla.

Matthews described the EDI as a “baseball summer camp.” It runs for two weeks with 125 players from two age-groups attending one week at a time. The teams are whittled down into groups of 25 that will compete in various events throughout the fall, like this one that is here.

“I’m really excited about where baseball is trying to go with this thing because the turnout now has been phenomenal,” Tom Gordon said. “We go to Vero and the kids get the things that they need – they go to study hall which is important because you’ve got have the grades – and we get the chance to have that one-on-one time with them.

Nunez participated in one of the MLB Breakthrough Series showcases during the summer and then was at the EDI: “They selected the top kids from each tournament to give them a good experience and get them away from their comfort zone. They want us to get used to being uncomfortable while we’re playing with great competition and great coaches,” he said, breaking into a smile.

The MLB Breakthrough Series just completed its eighth summer season and, according to Matthews, the endeavor has exceeded every expectation. Like most growing enterprising, the Series has evolved; what started out as fairly fundamental showcase events have turned into what can best be described as developmental showcase events.

Matthews describes the process as “investing in the future” and giving these young prospects an opportunity to perform at the PG WWBA Under World is part of that investment, especially in the realm of exposure.

“I think the experience to come together from all over the country and spending four or five days with each other, and playing and learning about the game that we all love (is important),” he said.

“It’s a first-class experience,” Faltine III said. “You don’t get these (opportunities) all the time so when they invite you to something like this and it’s something you want to do, to get the experience from these (former) MLB guys and other guys around you, it’s a fun time.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he added. “Just getting here with these guys that are actually (teaching) and going through the process of different game situations, and it helps you a lot just knowing what’s going on inside the game and how to properly fix things.”

From Matthews’ and the coaches’ viewpoint, the entire concept of the MLB Breakthrough Series revolves around having fun within the realm of the developmental process. Game-play, game strategy and other on-field happenings are all things that can be talked about when the team returns to the hotel.

“It makes for a unique experience and at the end of the day we really want to show the kids that they have a bright future in the game if they work hard and sacrifice and put in the effort on the field and in the classroom,” Matthews said.

The Breakthrough boys pounded out 20 hits in their first two games (nine innings total). California 2020 outfielder Chase Davis hit a home run, singled twice and drove in five runs; Carter singled three times and drove in three runs and Georgia 2019 catcher Christian Webb doubled and singled and also had three RBI.

Spivey, the field manager, used four pitchers and only Faltine III worked as many as four innings. He allowed one earned run on one hit and struck-out eight without issuing a walk, although he did hit a batter that eventually came around to score.

MLB Breakthrough Series was set to play it is final pool-play game at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship Saturday afternoon, and that outcome would determine if it advanced to the 64-team playoffs, which begin Sunday morning.

The tournament has already been a terrific experience for these 25 young prospects from across the country, and Matthews doesn’t expect the relationship between the MLB Breakthrough Series and PG to be ending anytime soon.

“The more opportunities that we can have to do this, and especially at a Perfect Game event with all of these teams from across the country, it’s a great experience and definitely worthwhile,” he said. “So, to bring another group back here again and for them to have the same opportunity and exposure, I think it’s something that we hope to continue to do.

“Ultimately, the kids benefit from it and have the opportunity to go to some of these good schools that are down here looking at these kids.”


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