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Saturday, June 16, 2018

Jefferson lives in the moment

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: DJ Jefferson (Perfect Game)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – A bit on the lanky side at 6-foot-5 and 185-pounds, Las Vegas 2019 right-hander DJ Jefferson nonetheless looks the part of a pitcher capable of doing some special things when he walks out on the mound.

A senior-to-be at Nevada powerhouse Desert Oasis High School, Jefferson arrived here at Tropicana Field – the domed home of the American League Tampa Bay Rays – for this weekend’s 18th annual Perfect Game National Showcase ranked as the No. 14 national prospect in his class, which also made him the 14th highest ranked prospect in attendance at the National.

“This is a blast,” Jefferson told PG about an hour before he went out and pitched for his PG Gray team late Friday night. “It’s a great opportunity being out here with everyone, all the top players in the country; it’s a great experience.

“I knew that I had to be here,” he added. “I knew I had to take advantage of this opportunity to show my talents and try to get to be an All-American.”

By that he meant a Perfect Game All-American, a distinction given to the 50 top rising seniors who will be selected to play in August’s PG All-American Classic at Petco Park in San Diego. PG officials will have interviewed close to 80 perspective All-Americans by the time the National concludes Sunday night, and nearly all of the 50 PGAAC roster spots will be filled by 50 of those 80 or so prospects.

“There are players out here from Puerto Rico and just everywhere in the country, and it’s amazing,” Jefferson said. “I personally feel that no matter where you come from, you have to approach the game the same way. … It’s important to stay relaxed, throw hard and just hit my spots.”

It’s likely that Jefferson received his invitation to the PG National based more on his WWBA tournament experiences – he’s been to 14 of them and has earned all-tournament recognition at two of those – than his showcase exploits.

The only other time he was at a PG showcase was last August when he took part in the PG Underclass All-American Games in San Diego; he was included on the exclusive Top Prospect List at the conclusion of the event.

“I went to the Underclass All-American last year, but this is different,” Jefferson said. “It’s similar, but there are so many (elite) players out here, it’s just great; it’s the best thing you can get to. … This is a key learning experience for our future.”

This is the 16th PG event Jefferson – a University of Southern California commit – has taken part in and he’s never shied away from going head-to-head with his peers on many of PG’s biggest stages.

Just last year alone he was at the PG Underclass All-American Games in San Diego and played at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship in Fort Myers, Fla., with Blackhawk National. He was also at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., with the Tri-State Arsenal/Blackhawks.

He’s played at the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., each of the last two years and can probably expect an invitation to return there in early August. Playing on national stages of that magnitude tends to bring out the best In Jefferson.

“You really have to focus on what you’re doing more than ever,” he said. “When I step on the mound I know what I need to do and I try to block everything else out.”

Jefferson likes to mix things up a little bit when he’s out there wheeling and dealing, starting with a four-seam fastball, a box changeup and a 12-6 curveball, and he loves nothing better than to get out there and challenge the best hitters in his age-group.

“When I know who they are and I know what they can do, I like to attack with a fastball and just make my way around them,” he said. “You really just need to go out there and focus on what you can do. I go out there thinking strikes and strikes only; it’s important to keep that mindset.”

There is a very strong baseball culture within the extended Las Vegas community and it’s been around for a lot of years (think Greg Maddux). But within the last decade it seems to have really started to dominate the headlines with the emergence of native sons Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Bryce Harper of the Nationals – both National League Rookies of the Year and Most Valuable Players – and the Rangers’ slugger Joey Gallo in the American League.

“I feel like I want to follow in their footsteps,” Jefferson said. “I want to follow in their paths and I want to be in their shoes one day. I need to keep working my butt off and just stay focused on and off the field just to get to where I want to be.”

As he’s continued on this journey, he points to his father, Demedrick Jefferson, as having the biggest impact on his career to date. It was his dad who started him out on this path and no matter what happens out on the field DJ is confident his dad is going to love him and continue to be supportive.

Desert Oasis HS enjoyed a truly fine season this spring, finishing 30-5. It entered the Nevada Interscholastic Activities (NIAA) Class 4A Sunset Region playoffs as the No. 1 seed but dropped a semifinal game to Palo Verde, dropped into the losers’ bracket and then fell to archrival Las Vegas Bishop Gorman and was eliminated.

“We have a great program,” he said of Desert Oasis HS. “One of our mottos is to stay humble and get after it, and that’s truly it. … We lost in the playoffs but we’re truly happy with the season we had this year.”

There is no guarantee that Jefferson will be selected to play in the All-American Classic despite his No. 14 national ranking and he understands the dynamics of the selection process. His fastball velocity topped out at 92 mph during his outing Friday, certainly a good number and pretty typical of where he’s been at previously.

“It’s something that I’d like to be a part of,” he said of the Classic, “but right now I can’t wait to be out there on Tropicana Field in another hour trying to earn a spot on the 50-man roster. That’s what I’m looking forward to right now.”

Looking ahead, Jefferson has Area Code Games tryouts back home in Las Vegas on Monday and plans on playing with Blackhawks National at WWBA and BCS tournaments in Emerson, Ga., and Fort Myers, Fla., in the coming weeks.

“It’s a blessing that I’ve been working hard to get where I am right now and to think where I’ll be next year,” Jefferson said. “I know where I want to be next year and I’m just going to keep working hard until draft day. And even if the draft doesn’t come (through) then I’ll do the best I can at USC.”

He said it’s far too early to be contemplating the 2019 MLB June Amateur Draft. As he spoke Friday night before making a start at the 2018 PG National Showcase, he was much more comfortable living in the here and now than thinking about what might happen nearly 12 months from now.

“It’s insane to be here at Tropicana Field and to think I’ll be throwing here in less than an hour,” Jefferson said. “I can’t wait to get out there on Tropicana Field; my adrenaline is going to be flowing.”

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