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Tournaments  | Story  | 10/21/2017

'Bags getting down and dirty

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: Perfect Game

JUPITER, Fla. – It’s been almost a year to the day since a team with the North Carolina-based Dirtbags organization left Roger Dean Stadium with the program’s second Perfect Game WWBA World Championship title since 2010, and the first one the program won outright.

The Dirtbags are back at the Roger Dean Stadium spring training complex this weekend looking for a repeat championship with what is essentially an entirely different roster, but, of course, one stocked with prospects that play the game the Dirtbags’ way.

That is the way program founder/owner/general manager/field manager Andy Partin wants it to be played and no one is allowed to cut corners or vary from the theme.

“(Partin) wants us to play hard and get dirty, to finish the game with the dirtiest jersey and just get after it,” top-500 ranked 2018 catcher/utility Aaron McKeithan said Saturday morning. “Just let the other team know that you’re here and that they’re playing (the Dirtbags).”

Ah yes, Dirtbags Baseball. It’s a program Partin established in 2002 and by following an outline based on trust and loyalty, it’s grown into one of the premier travel-team organizations in the country, best known for its successes at the PG WWBA World Championship. There are only four programs that have won multiple championships at the event – either outright or shared – and the Dirtbags are one of them.

“This is the event that we build on all fall, this is the one the kids want to come to. This is the big one; this is kind of our Omaha,” Partin said Saturday, referring to the site of the College World Series. “The cool thing about this tournament is every team in the tournament can win it.

“Nobody picked us to win this thing last year; nobody picked us to win the thing in 2010,” he continued. “Everyone’s picking the all-star (scout) teams because they’re looking at rankings and talent … but there are some good ‘teams’ in this thing, and they have a chance to go all the way.”

There may not be many “experts” picking the Dirtbags this year either, but the players and coaches pay no attention to speculation or predictions. This year’s team includes only two class of 2018 top-500 prospects that were on last year’s championship team: McKeithan and shortstop Ryder Giles.

This Dirtbags’ roster, like every Dirtbags’ roster throughout history, is heavy with top-tier North Carolina prep prospects – think Madison Bumgarner, Wil Myers, Chris Archer and Kyle and Corey Seager – and Giles is from Vass, N.C., McKeithan from Arden, N.C.

This year there are also some talented guys from South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia who have long been part of the program and earned a roster spot.

There is certainly a deep talent pool in the Carolinas and Partin recalled that 15 years ago he could pretty much get any kid he wanted, but there’s a lot more competition for their talents these days. Despite that, Partin still gets his fair share.

The most highly ranked 2018s are almost all designated as top-500s, although shortstop/right-hander and East Carolina recruit Connor Norby comes in at No. 358 and outfielder and High Point commit Sam Zayicek is at No. 433.

Among the top-500s, Giles has committed to East Carolina and McKeithan to Tulane; other schools with commitments from the top-500 ranked prospects include North Carolina (Davis Palermo), Clemson (Matthew Lumsden) and Duke (Aaron Beasley).

The top 2019s include right-hander/shortstop Travis Odom (No. 64, uncommitted), right-hander outfielder Tim Cao (No. 306, N.C. State), left-hander/first baseman AJ Wilson (No. 377, East Carolina and infielder Houston Koon (No. 433, N.C. State).

“We’ve spent the whole summer and the whole fall together, so we’ve got those bonds that have been formed,” Giles said of this Dirtbags’ team. “We’re out there playing for each other; we’re not playing for ourselves, just to impress the scouts. … I think that will be huge for us.”

It would be easy for a guy with Partin’s respected scouting resume – he is an associate scout for the Houston Astros – and impeccable reputation as an innovator and coach to make a bunch of phone calls and entice several top-50 prospects to join a Dirtbags scout team, but that’s not his modus operandi.

“That’s not what we’re trying to build with the Dirtbag program,” he said. “We want these guys to come all the way up with us – 8u, 9u, 10u – just as early as we can get them and get them into our system. And we’re going to be loyal to our kids; we don’t have a new group of kids come in every weekend to try to chase some trophy.”

Partin admits to having done some recruiting in the past and is smart enough to know his team would most likely benefit if it was something he would do again, but it’s just not what the program is about. At least not what the players have learned it’s all about.

The Dirtbags began the defense of their titles with a pair of pool-play victories Thursday and Saturday, beating Virginia-based MVP, 5-3, and New Jersey-based Team Northeast, 7-1.

2018 right-handers Baker Nelson and Zac Branham, and the lefty Beasley combined on a nine-strikeout six-hitter in the win over MVP. Odom threw three hitless, scoreless, seven-strikeout innings in the win over Northeast; 2019 righty Xander Hamilton and Cao combined to allow an earned run on seven hits with four strikeouts in their four innings of work.

The ‘Bags had eight hits – all singles – in the MVP victory with Giles and Norby picking up two apiece. All nine batters had at least one hit in their 12-hit attack against Team Northeast; Nick Fajardo was 3-for-3 with a pair of doubles and three RBI and Thomas Francisco was 2-for-3 with an RBI.

Before turning the conversation back to last year’s championship, it’s important get Partin’s opinion of the discussion:

“The thing we don’t talk about is last year,” he said emphatically. “I don’t ever compare them because that was last year’s team, and this is this year’s team and it’s not fair to these guys. There is some pressure here and people will walk by and say, ‘Hey man, are you going to win this thing?’ and that’s fun; we enjoy that.”

Last year’s Dirtbags’ team had to overcome a tie with unheralded Team Indiana in their second pool-play game, but their 2-0-1 record was good enough to win the pool championship and advance to the playoffs as the No. 12 seed.

Once in bracket-play, it was game-on. The ‘Bags took down the No. 21 Upstate Mavericks, 8-0, in the round-of-32, upset No. 5 Team EvoShield, 9-5, in the round-of-16 and stopped No. 29 CBA Marucci, 3-0 in the quarterfinals; all three of those games were played on Sunday, Oct. 23.

The next day they blanked the No. 29 Midland Redskins, 8-0, in the semifinals and finally took down No. 18 Team Elite Prime, 4-2, in the championship game; they had completed a 7-0-1 run to the title.

Mason Hickman, a 2017 right-hander, threw a five-inning, three-hitter (all singles) with five strikeouts and no walks in the semifinal victory and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Pitcher; he is now at Vanderbilt.

“It was so much fun, just that whole week here with the guys,” Giles said. “That Sunday when we played three games, it was just awesome. And then on Monday, obviously, winning that first game that morning – Mason threw a shutout, so that was big; we saved a lot of pitching – and then the championship game, it was just back-and-forth. It was a grind, but we played good, and when it was over it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.”

Giles was one of 10 Dirtbags named to the all-tournament team, a number that included Hickman and Most Valuable Player and Rutgers commit Davis Schneider. Both Giles and McKeithan take their responsibility as returning champions very seriously.

“Being here and watching other guys and how they reacted to the pitchers on the mound and the hitters in the (batter’s box), it was just really a good experience to look at them and see what they did and kind of learn from what they did,” McKeithan said, taking a catcher’s point of view.

“We had a really good catcher last year, (PG All-American) Phil Clarke, and I learned a lot from him just by talking to him when we were here.”

Giles shared many of the same thoughts: “Just with both of us being down here last year, we kind of know what it takes to win, and we can help the guys if it’s a big situation, kind of calm them down,” he said. “Since we’re the only two (returnees), it kind of feels like we’re starting from scratch, but not really that much.”

Partin acknowledged there is added pressure on his team with all this talk of taking home back-to-back championships. He talks with the players about understanding who they are and what got them here but worries that sometimes these teenage ballplayers take on different personas when they walk through the gates at the Roger Dean complex. They see all the scouts and all the golf carts, and they try to do a little bit more than maybe they’re capable of doing.

“We preach hard work and we preach ‘earning it’ and all that type of stuff, but we’re a ‘team’; we’re not an all-star team,” Partin said. “It’s hard for us to win because we’re going to be out-talented almost every game; we have to play exceptionally well to win. If we play an all-star team and they play well, the odds are they’re going to beat us. But if we play well, man we’re going to win some games.”

McKeithan told PG he feels like he benefitted greatly from his experiences a year ago, and this year he doesn’t feel quite as overwhelmed by all the distractions created by the scouts and carts. And because of that, he feels qualified to give his teammates – the first-timers – some pointers on how to block it all out. He is confident they’ll just go out and continue to do what they do best.

“We have a lot of ‘dirtbags’ I guess is the best way to describe it,” McKeithan said with a laugh. “We play hard, just like last year, and we fight until the end. Our pitchers throw strikes, our pitchers fill up the zone, kind of similar to last year. Our pitchers last year probably had a little more velo but this year the guys have pitchability, so it helps.”

Added Giles: “All of Andy’s teams go out there and play as hard as they can and give 110 percent. No matter which (Dirtbags) team it is, we’re going to do that.”