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Tournaments | Story | 10/20/2018

GST/FTB ready to run the race

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Maxwell Romero Jr. (Perfect Game)

JUPITER, Fla. – Very much like many of the travel ball organizations that form a partnership with an MLB club to play under a shared banner at the Perfect Game WWBA World Championship, when the Giants Scout Team/FTB players and coaches enter the Roger Dean Stadium Complex they have a certain air of professionalism about them.

They’re decked-out in San Francisco Giants replica uniforms, with “GIANTS” emblazoned across the chest and the “FTB” logo on the left pant leg. They’re dressed for success, and for the last two WWBA World Championships, success has walked in lockstep with the GST/FTB program.

This is the same affiliated group, playing under the FTB/SF Giants Scout Team name, that finished as runner-up in Jupiter last year. This year’s Giants Scout Team/FTB group looks at least equally as talented as its predecessor and after winning its pool championship Saturday morning at the Roger Dean Stadium Complex, another deep playoff run is set firmly in its sights.

“Last year’s team was probably the best team I’ve ever been a part of,” 2018 PG All-American Riley Greene, an underclassman on the 2017 squad, told PG Saturday morning. “They were all really, really good (players) and when Coach (Alan Kunkel) had me hitting leadoff,  I was like, ‘What?’ We played a lot of games, but it was a lot of fun, too; being able to play with those guys was a great experience for me.”

Kunkel is back in charge this week, too, and he liked what he saw from this group of Giants after they outscored their three pool-play opponents by a combined 19-1 – numbers that should be good enough to claim one of the top seeds in the playoffs, which begin Sunday.

There are three players on this roster that were members of the 2017 runner-up team: centerfielder Greene, the No. 2-ranked national prospect in the class of 2019 from Oviedo, Fla., who has committed to Florida; catcher Maxwell Romero Jr., the No. 81-ranked Vanderbilt commit from Miramar, Fla.; and left-hander Carson Palmquist, the No. 302-ranked Miami commit out of Fort Myers, Fla.

Otherwise, the roster is a nice mix of players that have been involved with the FTB organization for a while now and who have a deep appreciation for what their association with the program means.

There are three PG All-Americans rostered – Greene, shortstop Myles Austin (No. 24, Alabama) from Smyrna, Ga., and outfielder Hylan Hall (No. 31, Miami) from Ocoee, Fla. All of the GST/FTB prospects have played on one big PG stage or another, and Kunkel said that can have a “calming effect” when they get to this event.

He also called the team “hungry” noting that the three players that are back and the host of newcomers joining them are fully aware that last year’s team advanced to the finals but came up just short in a nine-inning game.

“This is obviously a different team, but what makes me proud is these guys are awesome in the dugout,” Kunkel said Saturday. “This is a really, really interesting group in the sense that they really like each other (and) they’re fun to be around.

“They genuinely cheer for one another whether they’re in the lineup or not,” he added. “It makes it easy to kind of champion what they are as people and it’s made it fun so far. That’s important in terms of the success that we’ve had.”

The other top 2019 prospects on the roster include shortstop Tyler McKenzie (No. 71, Vanderbilt), right-hander Alejandro Torres (No. 106, Florida International) and Benjamin Rozenblum (No. 223, Florida International).

Shortstop Alex Freeland (No. 45, uncommitted), right-hander Jovan Gill (No. 79, uncommitted) and outfielder Grayson Moore (No. 90, Central Florida) are the top 2020s and middle-infielder Michael Braswell (No. 42, South Carolina) is the lone 2021.

“This group is unique,” Greene said. “They’re all athletes, they all can play multiple positions. We have a lot of two-way guys that can pitch and then play shortstop, second or where ever they can. Our lineup is very good, too. We have a lot of good bats, we have a lot of consistent bats, too, so that’s going to play a big role in this tournament.”

Greene went 4-for-8 (.500) with a double, triple and two RBI hitting from the lead-off spot in FTB’s three pool-play wins. McKenzie was 3-for-8 (.375) with a single, double, triple and four RBI; Austin singled twice, stole five bases and scored three runs and 2019 Vaughn Grissom (No. No. 237, Florida International) was 3-for-7 (.429) with a double and two runs knocked in.

And this is how championships are won in Jupiter: Kunkel used 11 pitchers in those three games, with no one working more than two innings; they combined to allow just the one earned run in 17 total innings (0.41 ERA) with 32 strikeouts.

“When I’m catching and I have a pitcher who can locate and be easy-minded, it’s easy, you know?” said Romero, ranked the No. 14 overall national catching prospect in his class. “… And we showed (Friday) that we can hit the ball, too. It’s a good balance of things, and we have it going.”

With Greene and Romero Jr. playing integral roles in last year’s run to the championship game – Greene finished 8-for-21 (.381) with a double and eight RBI in an all-tournament team performance – they were able to learn valuable lessons from the experience.

The Giants had played 23 innings on “Championship Monday” by the time they lost the championship game to the Canes Prospects, and because of rain on Friday, they had played six games in what amounted to about a 36-hour stretch.

Both players remembered that the team ran out of pitching and position players had to be used on the mound, including PG All-American outfielder Preston Hartsell and another top outfielder, Isaiah Thomas, in the ninth inning. Greene said the team is stocked with pitching this year, so if it can advance to the championship game for a second straight year, that shouldn’t be an issue.

“You have to have a tough mindset because it’s a grind trying to play all these games,” he added. “It’s pretty tiring … and I remember last year after the second game on Monday, I was gassed. You have to have a tough mindset and you have to be ready for whatever comes up.”

Romero recalled that going into that final day, the players were thinking that they just needed to get in-and-out of the quarterfinal and semifinal games as quickly as possible – that didn’t happen. And then, the nine-inning championship game lasted 3½ hours mostly because of the numerous pitching changes.

“It was a good lesson to teach us (because) in pro ball you’re going to be playing from 7 a.m. to 10 (p.m.), so it was a good example of what we would see,” Romero said Saturday. “Especially for me and Riley as underclassmen it was good to see that and experience it before (this year).”

Based on that experience, the coach Kunkel and the players Greene, Romero Jr., and Palmquist came into this event with a slightly different perspective than just about everyone else, with the exception of the 14 Canes Prospects players that are also back here this weekend.

But some things don’t ever change within each separate organization, especially when it comes to the way the tournament is approached. Kunkel noted that different players from different programs often come to Jupiter for a variety of reasons.

There’s a part of it that is very much a showcase, for instance. But there’s also a part of it where the players are saying, hey, we all love playing baseball and we want to compete against the best age-group players in the world, so let’s go out and get after it.

Or, as Greene put it: “It’s exhilarating. It’s being able to play against these really good teams and if you lose, you’re done. It’s just a lot of fun trying to compete against these guys.”

So, with the lessons learned last year and the experiences these talented players had over the summer, what was the pre-tournament conversation like?

“We just spoke about trying to go through it all, trying to finish it,” Romero said. “Go through it, have fun with the game and have good chemistry; good chemistry wins game. … We’re a pretty well-rounded team and chemistry will keep us close … and that will get us to the top and push us all the way through to the championship.

“I know it’s going to be exciting,” he added. “We’re going to have to have a lot of arms come up big and a lot of bats come up big, too.”

Kunkel is confident his guys will answer the bell because, if for no other reason, they are first-and-foremost high-character young men. With hundreds of MLB scouts watching their every move, this is very much a job interview for many of them, and the FTB coaches expect them to carry themselves professionally:

Make sure you wear your uniform from the car to the field and from the field to the car. Make sure when you walk in, the people that want to talk to you, look them in the eye and shake their hand.

“We all believe that character wins, and the detail in it all is just reminding them, most importantly, is that who they are is not what they are on the field,” Kunkel said. “… Some of them, we know, are going to play for a long time. Some of them, we know, they’re going to play this game professionally but at the end of the day it’s the kind of person they are that’s going to transcend the game and give them the opportunity to be successful.”

And, hey: it’s playoff time at the PG WWBA World Championship.

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