Tournaments | Story | 6/3/2019

PG European Classic: Day 4

David Rawnsley        
Photo: Ignas Pauliukevicius (Perfect Game)

PG European Classic: Day 1 Notes | Days 2-3 Notes

BRNO, CZE: The Lithuanian United Team 16u is a perfect example of where baseball is in Eastern Europe. The team came to the PG European Classic last year with mostly the same team and has improved significantly over the past 12 months. Their primary source of games at home is to play in the Lithuanian Adult League against much older players.

The manager/director of the Lithuanian team, in addition to youth baseball across the country, is Virmidas Neverauskas. If that last name sounds familiar, he is the father of Pittsburgh Pirates righthanded pitcher Dovydas Neverauskas, who might be the most unlikely Big League player ever considering his background growing up in Lithuania.

Virmidas Neverauskas was literally one of the first baseball players in Lithuania and helped start the first organized team in the country. For his son to climb the highest mountain in baseball so soon after the first seed of baseball was planted in the country is incredible in context.

A perfect example of the reality of where baseball in Lithuania and in Eastern Europe is at present can be captured in watching their outfielder Ignas Pauliukevicius (2021, Kaunas, LTU) play over a few games. Pauliukevicius is 16 years old and has an outstanding 6-foot-2, 175-pound athletic build. He performed extremely well in the PG Series testing all the athletes participated in here in Brno and recorded one of the strongest grip strengths ever recorded in PG Series participation. He’s the type of athlete who could be a three-sport standout right now at an American high school. The ball explodes off his bat when he squares it up, he runs well and he was 81 mph off the mound with very raw mechanics. But his present baseball skills are so young that he would have trouble at least initially competing with his age peers in the United States. On one play on Sunday, Pauliukevicius was on second base when a clean single was hit to left field. Neverauskas was coaching third base and had a clear stop sign out almost as soon as the ball landed in the outfield, but Pauliukevicius ran right through it head down. You could see Neverauskas’ head drop and his hand go to his forehead even before the play at the plate as if to say, “Yes, I will continue to work hard with these players and help them improve but we still have a long way to go.”

Top 16U Overall Prospect

Team National Cadets shortstop Merlin-Tyrus Bendlin has consistently impressed this scout throughout the European Classic with his high-level athleticism and skills at shortstop defensively. He’s a very live-bodied athlete with bounce in all his actions and can really work through a ball well at shortstop and get rid of it quickly. Based on his 30-yard time in testing (3.81) he is probably at 6.7-6.8 type runner in the 60 and it would be very easy to give him a PG 9 grade for his fielding. Bendlin’s swing is quick and twitchy and he showed power today with a double off the left field fence, so he’s not just a high-level defender. He’s 16 years, 10 months old and will receive his high school certificate next year, so he’s the equivalent of a 2020 player in the United States. Impressively, Bendlin is also the youngest player ever to play in the top division of the German Bundesliga after making the Mannheim Tornados team this year. Bendlin can certainly play middle infield at a mid-level D1 school and probably at many higher level D1 schools.

16U Final Standings

Czech Baseball Academy Red 5-0
Czech Baseball Academy Blue 4-1
National Team Cadets 4-1
KMC Ambassadors 3-2
Czech National Team 2-2-1
Lithuanian Baseball 1-4
Czech Baseball Academy White 2-3
Ukraine United Team 16U 1-3-1
Hrosi Brno 16U 2-3
Slovakia 15U 0-5

16U Most Valuable Player

Catcher Matej Vlach (2022, Hluboká Nad Vltavou, CZE) hit in the leadoff spot for the runner-up Czech Baseball Academy Blue team and executed his role perfectly, going 8-for-14 at the plate in addition to drawing four walks, stealing six bases and scoring eight runs in five games. In addition, his walk off single in Czech Blue’s 6-5 win over National Team Cadets enabled his team to reach the championship game.

16U Most Valuable Pitcher/Top 16U Pitching Prospect

Lefthander Tomas Hrbek (2020, Brno, CZE) started two games for the champion Czech Baseball Academy Red team, picking up two wins, including throwing five innings of three-hit baseball in the championship game. Hrbek has a strong and projectable 6-foot athletic build and a very smooth delivery and arm action that produced a fastball up to 83 mph to go with a nice low-70’s slider.  Hrbek is 16 years, 5 months old and there is no question that he’ll throw harder as he further matures physically and he already has the delivery, pitchability and arm action to build from.

12U Final Standings

Czech Baseball Academy Green 5-0
Czech National Team 12U 4-1
Technicka Brno 12U 4-1
Hrosi Brno 12U 3-2
Euro Baseball Tour 12U 3-2
Ukraine United Team 12U 2-3
KMC Ambassadors 2-3
Slovakia 12U 1-4
Czech Baseball Academy Orange 1-4
Lithuania Baseball 12U 0-5

12U Most Valuable Player

Benjamin O'Rourke was an offensive force for the champion Czech Baseball Academy Green team, going 10-for-13 at the plate with five doubles, a home run and 12 RBI in five games. Of course, Czech Green did hit .573 with 23 extra base hits while scoring 70 runs in five wins, so O’Rourke had plenty of help from his teammates. He also took a start on the mound and picked up a win.

12U Most Valuable Pitcher

Martin Senk of Technicka Brno 12U threw a six-inning complete game against the Ukraine United Team in a 5-1 Technicka win, striking out nine hitters and only allowing one hit. He also contributed offensively to Technicka’s overall 4-1 record, going 6-for-14 with two doubles and a home run while scoring 10 runs overall.

Reflections on Brno and Baseball

The differences between the Czech Republic, specifically the city of Brno (pop. 300,000 +/-), and the United States couldn’t be more stark in many ways.  Yes, a Marriott Courtyard in Brno is indistinguishable from anywhere else in the world and cars drive on the right side of the road and I didn’t hear a song on the ballpark speakers I hadn’t heard before.  Map apps work on your phone. And there are plenty of the ubiquitous American fast food restaurants, although why a Czech citizen would choose to eat at a Burger King or KFC is beyond me.

The food we ate over the course of almost a week was stunningly good and amazingly clean. There are numerous food preservatives and additives that are banned in Europe that are common in the United States and the impact of not using them is immediately obvious. The breads, pastries and meats leap out for their freshness and flavor and the Czech people certainly love their sweet pastries (don’t even ask about a dumpling stuffed with fresh strawberries). There are fresh fruit and vegetables with everything. Once one leaves the city center there are gardens everywhere. The fields along the highways are lush green with winter wheat ready for harvest and interspersed with vineyards.

And everything is mind numbingly inexpensive. One of our party had a steak one night that would have run $50 at least at home; it was the equivalent of $8.50 in Czech Koruna. The spaghetti with pancetta and anchovies I had at the same meal was simply the best pasta I’ve ever tasted; it was about $7. One can never get tired of spending $1.25 for a pour of Pilsner Urquell or Starobrno. Using the ample public transportation costs $2/day.

The picturesque city center, located about a mile from our hotel was beautiful, cultural and spotlessly clean. It was completely safe to walk back alone to the hotel after midnight. And, of course, everything in Brno, like most of Europe, is old and has a history. The spectacular St. Peter and Paul Cathedral was originally built on the same site late in the 11th century and has been updated many times since. Brno was the capital of Monrovia long before the United States existed. The Starobrno Brewery is a continuation of a brewery originally founded in 1325.

But baseball, as it often does, seems to transcend cultural and living conditions. The fields and facilities were excellent and tended to with meticulous care with the same type of equipment one would find at thousands of fields across the United States. The 16-year-old and younger athletes played hard and were happy at successes, both individual and team, and disappointed with failure. The rhythms of the game were instantly recognizable to any baseball fan, whether it be in the quick call for a time out after a stolen base or the flaps down rounding of first base by an excited player after a key RBI single.

The reality is that it is very unlikely that there was a future Major League player in Brno this week and probably not even a future minor league player. There will be another Dovydas Neverauskas from a smaller European baseball country someday and there will certainly be another Max Kepler from a Germany or Italy or even perhaps the Czech Republic as well. There were many young players here this week who could play at various college programs across the United States and it is important to get especially those players playing against as high level of competition as possible so that their skills can improve.

But moving beyond the top players here, the most important role of the PG European Classic now and into the future is to continue to plant the seeds of the future baseball coaches and leaders across the region. For there to be another Dovydas Neverauskas, you first have to have the coach with the motivation and knowledge to grow the player.

One of the coaches for the Ukraine United team was seen walking around the City Stadium field meticulously taking pictures of everything down to the most basic grounds crew tools.  When asked what he was doing, he responded in broken English, “We do not have baseball fields like this in the Ukraine. I want to build one. With my own hands. To do this I must know what I will need.”

Those are the baseball seeds that are being planted.
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