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Tournaments | Story | 7/10/2019

EC Astros gut-out the grind

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Alec Gonzalez (Perfect Game)

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Like an aging rock band spending its summer on some sort of farewell tour, the East Cobb Astros 17u Navy are making all the stops on the 2019 Perfect Game Tournament Tour, leaving no stone unturned in a never-ending quest to claim championships.

The PG 17u BCS National Championship is the most recent stop on this grinding journey of discovery, and as is usually the case with any EC Astros team – regardless of age-group – they’re making the most of it.

It’s a team of workhorses, no one can question that. East Cobb Baseball Vice President and Astros 17u Navy head coach Kevin Baldwin told PG on Wednesday that this appearance at the 17u BCS National Championship marks the eighth straight week the Astros 17u Navy have competed in a Perfect Game tournament; he added that they’ve played in six championship games, winning three of them.

“We kind of know what the grind is, and the momentum has been (carrying over) all year long,” he said. “Actually, we’re kind of maybe having to step back a little bit and get some rest because it is day after day after day, tournament after tournament.

“Mentally, it’s a grind with the schedule that I’ve put together, but the kids are really, really enjoying it, really playing hard and really getting a lot out of it.”

The EC Astros 17u Navy won their first five pool-play games here by a combined count of 31-7 and look poised to advance into the top-tier Championship Bracket for the playoffs, which begin Friday.

Alec Gonzalez is a top 2020 infielder/right-hander who is ranked No. 147 nationally. He is a Tennessee commit from Flossmore, Ill., and he also happens to be playing in his first full season with the EC Astros program. It’s obvious in his words that he’s bought into the EC Astros’ culture.

“It’s tunnel vision right now,” he said Wednesday, thinking about the games yet to be played. “We’ve got to keep going the right direction, keep winning games, putting runs on the board and keep playing defense; that’s how we do it here at East Cobb. This group of guys is really talented and they do a really good job of that.”

This is a roster brimming with talent. Baldwin used 15 players in the first five games and 12 of the 2020s are ranked as top-500 prospects or lower. Elite right-hander Will Sanders, a South Carolina commit, leads the pack at No. 46, with outfielder/right-hander Brad Grenkoski (Georgia Tech) not far behind at No. 91.

As mentioned, Gonzalez comes in at No. 147, with right-hander Zachary Murray (Louisiana State) next in line at 220. He’s followed by infielder John Anderson (No. 276, Georgia Tech); middle-infielder Ethan Stamps (No. 298, Lipscomb); left-hander/outfielder Colin Ahearn (No. 335, Tennessee) and first baseman/outfielder Andrew Bennett (No. 371, Samford).

In Wednesday’s 8-0 win over D-BAT Elite East Coast, a couple of top-500 2020s chipped-in rather loudly.  Gehrig Ebel, a Virginia Tech commit, joined Bennett and Ahearn with two RBI apiece and left-hander Josiah Siegel (Georgia Tech) threw 5 1/3 innings of one-hit ball, striking out nine without a walk.

“We have a lot of kids who have been playing with each other for the last two or three years; there’s some real good chemistry going on,” Grenkoski told PG on Wednesday.

The Astros 17u Navy came into the 17u BCS after a strong showing at the 17u WWBA National Championship, finishing 8-1-0 after a 3-0 third-round playoff loss to the Gamers 17u Blue. The game was scoreless through six innings – Sanders was doing the dealing from the mound for East Cobb – but the Gamers scored three in the top of the seventh, only one was earned, to escape with the win.

“We kind of came up on the wrong end of that one; I think we kind of had it set in our minds that we had a chance to make a deeper run,” Baldwin said. “But any time you go (8-1) in a field like that, you can’t be too upset.”

Baldwin views each team separately from year-to-year because different players, while not necessarily interchangeable, do emerge and the coaches have to make sure they can come together and be the cohesive unit every program desires to have.

That ability to jell and take on the “one for all, all for one” mentality will ultimately determine each team’s ability to succeed. It is, after all, the East Cobb way.

When the different moving parts that make up this East Cobb 17u Navy roster were first brought together in late spring, the coaching staff gave the assembled players its annual “state of the program” address. Baldwin said they talked about the necessity of learning how to play the game as a team because this isn’t showcase baseball, it’s team baseball.

It remains important to the staff to continue to teach the basics of baseball because, as Baldwin said, there are different aspects of each game where there’s a lesson to be learned. Again, it’s just kind of the East Cobb way.

“It becomes a grind because it’s the same thing week-after-week-after-week, but that’s also part of college baseball, minor league baseball,” he said. “That’s what you have to do to be successful at that next level so we try to implement that at this level.”

Baldwin doesn’t do it alone, of course. On Wednesday he was effusive in his praise of the coaching staff, which includes a couple of guys who played for him in the not-so-distant past. The names are familiar: Matthew Crownover, Adam Martin and Sean Fream (Josh Burris is another top assistant who did not play with ECB).

“They’ve come back and they’re giving back because they knew what it did for them in their careers,” Baldwin said. “They went through the whole process and went through the grind and saw what it did for them, and now they’re back trying to help kids go through the same process they did and reach their goals. … That’s awesome and it’s really satisfying for me, too.”

Count Gonzalez among those who is appreciative of what’s going on with the program: “I adapted really quickly with the guys and the coaching staff is amazing,” he said. “It’s a great group of guys right here and I love playing with them and working out with them.”

Baldwin pointed out that he’s been at this for 20-plus years now and if he didn’t love it he would leave it behind. As he’s gotten older, he realized how gratifying it can be to watch these teenagers experience success at a variety of levels and at different degrees.

That might a kid who came into the summer uncommitted and a few weeks in gets that offer from his dream school. It might also be watching that elite player who is already committed continue to work so hard that he’s firmly on the radar of the MLB scouting community.

“That’s what makes it enjoyable for me,” he said. “I’ve won enough championships, so if they win championships that’s a bonus – that’s awesome, that’s great for the kids. I don’t do it for that reason anymore, I do it to help the kids.”

East Cobb Baseball founder Guerry Baldwin has been sending his ECB teams to Perfect Game tournaments for more than 20 years now and the organization has had a presence at the BCS National Championship since the series’ inception in 2006.

East Cobb Astros teams dominated at the 17u level in the early years, winning outright championships in 2007, 2009 and 2010, and sharing the championship with Midwest Elite Baseball in 2013 when weather woes forced the cancelation of the championship game.

Baldwin firmly believes that most of the players on this Astros 17u Navy roster both understand and have an appreciation for the East Cobb Baseball’s history of success, simply because many of them have been with program since they were 10-year-olds.

“They know what it means to go out there and represent that jersey every game, every day and put out their best effort,” he said. “Like a lot of other programs out there, there’s always somebody watching. You’ve got that bullseye on your chest so you’ve got to put out your best effort; if you don’t, somebody’s going to notice.”

Or, as the new guy put it: “The people that came before me (with the Astros), they earned the title of being the best team in the country,” Gonzalez said. “Being able to keep the legacy going, it’s a great honor and we just have to keep going, keep putting in the work.”

The grind is not over for this group, either. As soon as its run is completed here at the 17u BCS National Championship they’ll head up to Hoover, Ala., for the PG WWBA 17u Elite Championship which takes place July 18-21, and then it’s off to the 17u PG World Series in Scottsdale, Ariz., July 25-29.

“There might be some days when it’s a little tougher than the others (to get up and head out to the ball yard), but this is what we do, this is what we love to do,” Grenkoski said. “It’s our dream to play baseball every day for the rest of our lives and it’s pretty fun. I’d rather be doing this than have a real job.”

Gonzalez feels exactly the same way: “It’s always a really great feeling coming out here every day and playing the game we love,” he concluded. “And with this group of guys … we love playing every day and we want to win a championship every time we’re out here; it’s awesome.”

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