GOODYEAR, Ariz. – With apologies to the Las Vegas’ committee on tourism, what happens in Vegas – at least when it comes to amateur baseball – has been let totally of the bag. And you can credit the LVR organization for letting everyone know what’s happening on the high school fields in and around that glittering Nevada city.
The Las Vegas Recruits – LVR for short – are back in Phoenix’s West Valley this holiday weekend for the Perfect Game WWBA West Memorial Day Classics, the fourth straight year the program has teams involved in the event.
There are 14u, 16u and 18u WMDCs being played at the Goodyear Ball Park and the Camelback Ranch (Glendale) MLB spring training complexes and LVR has teams competing at both the 14u and 18u age-group divisions this weekend.
The LVR organization has won five PG tournament championships held in the Valley since it became a big-time player in travel baseball on this side of the country, a number that includes back-to-back titles at the 2016-17 14u WMDC; the program also has a pair of runner-up finishes in its history, including one at last year’s 18u WMDC. This event just seems to bring out the best in these young players, most of whom live in the Las Vegas area.
“This is really just kind of about getting back in the swing of things,” Evan Greusel, who runs the program along with Brad Maloff, told PG before the talented LVR 18u team played its tournament opener in Goodyear Friday morning. “These kids have all been playing for different coaches at different high schools, so by getting them all back on the field, they get excited to be back playing with each other. They were tweeting and sending messages a month ago saying, ‘I can’t wait for Memorial Day.’
“It’s just baseball, it’s just getting back on the field,” he added. “These fields are nice; this tournament is run well … and I think they’re excited when high school is over and they get to roll into this.”
Thomas Dilandri, a 2021 outfielder/right-handed pitcher and a TCU commit who PG ranks as the No. 11 overall national prospect in his class, was especially anxious to put springtime in the rearview mirror.
“The summer season is the best,“ he told PG on Friday. “It’s the best ball in my opinion and I can’t wait to get it all rolling. … There’s nothing better than being down here and playing on a nice field in nice weather, and having a great event going on, too.”
It was a spectacular late-spring day in the West Valley Friday, with games being played under a cloudless sky with temperatures sitting nicely in the upper 80s.
And this 18u LVR team is a special group, Greusel told PG, one that pretty much knows by now what it has to do to be successful. It’s pretty simple, really, because Greusel and Maloff constantly remind the players there is nothing here to reinvent; it’s just a matter of getting back to the basics.
“Baseball is baseball and these guys have competed in so many of these events that we don’t have to say much,” Greusel said. “We just kind of have to set a lineup and stay out of their way.”
The 18u Recruits’ roster is a nice mix of talented prospects from the classes of 2020 and 2021, with 11 ranked in the top-500 nationally and nine committed to NCAA D-I schools.
The 2020s are led by No. 146 catcher/first baseman Emilio Morales and No. 172 outfielder/first baseman Carson Wells, both of whom have committed to Southern California. No. 218 right-hander/outfielder Michael Rice and No. 399 second baseman/outfielder Zachary Rodriguez, both UC Santa Barbara commits, are other top 2020s, as are top-500s Noah Carabajal (St. Mary’s), Cayden Castellanos (New Mexico), Kade Higgins and Joshua Johnson, the MV Pitcher at the 2017 14u WMDC.
Top 2021s on the roster in addition to Dilandri include No. 46 shortstop/third baseman Tyler Whitaker (Arizona) and No. 227 shortstop/right-hander Garrett Cutting (Stanford.).
“It’s great; I always look forward to coming out and playing,” said Whitaker, who played at the 2017 PG 14u Select Baseball Festival and has been with LVR for four years. “This year especially, because it’s nice to be back with everybody else after the high school (season). I play with a couple of them in Vegas but most of the time we’re playing against each other, and just being with the kids from Cali that we’ve played with since we were 12 or 13 years old is so much fun.
“We all feed off of each other and we just play super well together because our chemistry has been there since were young.”
There’s a lot to like about this team, including that they just know how to play the game at a consistently high level. If there’s a runner at second base with no outs, that runner will inevitably end up at third. If there’s a runner at third and less than two outs, that runner will inevitably score – or so it seems. These guys just know how to do the little things that will put the game in the win column.
“We’ve got a good pitching staff, we’ve got good catchers behind the plate,” Greusel said. “We’re going to get strikes; we’re going to get catchers that control the running game. This group has been just really easy to coach. You’d love to sit here and take credit for them as a coach … but any kid that we plug in fits the mold and rolls right along with them.”
There is certainly value in getting a talented team like the Recruits out to events like the PG WMDC where they can go up against top-notch out-of-state competition, but that usually happens only once or twice a month during the summer.
What a team like LVR really benefits from, according to Greusel, is the internal competition at practices; it’s what drives these players. When you have Joshua Johnson, Garrett Cutting and Tyler Whitaker all taking ground balls at short at every practice, they’re competing against each other in an effort to make each other better.
“I don’t know if it’s about the (prospect) rankings because a lot of that is perspective, but it’s internal on the field,” Greusel said. “Logan Bleazard is going to start today and if he goes out and throws five scoreless, (Josh) Johnson tomorrow is going to want to top that, and then Noah Glaser is going to want to top that in game-three. I think that is probably the biggest secret to this team’s success is that at every practice they’re competing.”
The 18u LV Recruits showed why they were among the pre-tournament favorites in their opener Friday, taking down Los Angeles-based PFAHD, 8-0 in five innings. Bleazard and Cutting combined on a two-hit, eight-strikeout shutout; Wells singled and scored twice; Glaser delivered a two-run single; Whitaker, Morales and Castellanos each had RBI singles and Mason Strong singled and scored twice.
“Everybody on this team bonds in their own way,” Dilandri said. “That’s why the team is successful because everyone plays together. It’s a great team to play for. We all push each other to the limits we need to be pushed to.”
Eleven of the 15 players on LVR’s official roster at the 18u PG WMDC live in the Las Vegas area – three are from California and one from Utah – and Vegas baseball community is as vital as any in the country.
Homegrown big-league stars like former PG All-Americans Kris Bryant, Bryce Harper and Joey Gallo, along with Tommy Pham, have risen to put Vegas on the map, although they were preceded by Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddux. Seeing those names can be very exciting for hopeful teenaged ballplayers with big dreams.
“Ever since (those guys) came out of Las Vegas and now with us wearing LV on our chest, I think we represent it well,” Cutting said. “It’s something big because we want to represent Vegas and show what kind of talent comes out of Vegas.”
Greusel loves to hear his players take pride in the program while also being held accountable. The younger players practice right alongside the older guys, so everyone knows what is expected from them as soon as they become part of the program. It’s a process established by the upperclassmen who, in turn, pass it along to the underclassmen.
“LVR has been nothing but great things with the development of players – it’s been beyond good,” Dilandri said. “It’s one of the best programs you’ll ever play for.”
“They’ve been so helpful to me and my career,” Whitaker added. “There are other people in Vegas, too, but LVR has been my foundation since I was 12.”
The foundation has been laid and now it’s up to this next group of players to continue to build upon it. Once thing seems certain: LVR will continue to be heard from throughout the remainder of the 18u WWBA WMDC’s four-day run.
“I’m always looking forward to this,” Cutting said. “I love being down here with my team and getting back together with my guys. … We always have some banter back-and-forth about whose high school team is better but once we get back here it’s just like we never left; we’re all friends and brothers for life.”
These guys are in the right place at the right time: “This is always the best tournament because it’s the first one back out and everyone’s excited,” Greusel said. “Like I said, there’s been a group text that started a month out with this group. It’s just a good group of families, a good group of kids and we’re always excited to be out on a ballfield.”