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Tournaments | Story | 7/15/2019

Hit Factory PRO spins the hits

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Jonathan Vastine (Perfect Game)

FORT MYERS, Fla. – The guess here is that simply going by name alone, no one is really all that surprised that the guys rostered with Hit Factory PRO at this week’s Perfect Game 16u BCS National Championship can hit the ball like, well, pros. Turns out, they can pitch it and field it pretty darn well, too.

The PROs raked, rocked and rolled their way to three pool-play victories by scores of 7-0, 8-0 and 10-0 Sunday and Monday and have already acquired “frontrunner” status just two days into the PG national championship tournament.

They definitely chose a loud manner in which to introduce themselves to the rest of the 64-team field but these players and coaches felt that sort of introduction was necessary. They’re coming off of what they felt was a disappointing 5-1-1 finish at last week’s PG 16u WWBA National Championship up in the Atlanta area and wanted to make a statement.

“We were really a little upset that we didn’t make it as far as we wanted to but we came into this one with a fresh mindset and we’re ready to just win this tournament,” top 2021 middle-infielder/right-hander Jonathan Vastine told PG Monday morning, speaking from the Lee County Player Development 5-Plex. “The goal coming in was to get ahead early and show everyone what we’ve got here.”

This has been a pretty electric run the HF PROs have been on over the last couple of weeks. It started when they went 7-0-0 and won the championship at the 16u PG World Series Qualifier played June 20-24 in Sanford, Fla. That championship awarded the team a paid berth to next week’s 16u PG World Series in Sanford.

They then headed for the north Atlanta suburbs where they played in the blockbuster 16u WWBA National Championship. Hit Factory PRO went 5-0-0 to start pool-play and looked poised for a deep run into the playoffs but it was not to be. Its sixth game ended in a tie and the seventh in a loss and the PROs ultimately missed the playoffs all together.

When manager/head coach Pat Russo made out the team’s schedule for the summer, everything that was done early on was directed toward showing enough improvement where they would be forces to be reckoned with at the PG 16u Big 3: the WWBA National Championship, the BCS National Championship and the PG World Series.

Russo said he has mentioned the 16u PGWS a time or two but his players will hear none of it. They’ve all told him, Coach, we’re not talking about next week, we want to take care of business here this week.

“So, they’ve come out (strong) and I think our pitching is really superior to most,” he continued. “We just have to come out and keep the momentum going. … I think these guys are focused for the full amount of game time that we’ve got to play.”

Through three games, focus doesn’t appear to be a problem. They’ve totaled 29 hits and eight players – Vastine, Cole Russo, Frank Perez, Breton Cusic, Kohl Robertson, Aaron Saltsman, Keaton Howard and Riley Linne – are hitting .429 or better; Russo is 5-for-8 (.625) and Robertson and Vastine both have four RBI.

Austin Grause, a 2021 right-hander/utility who is ranked No. 174 nationally and has committed to South Florida, did offer a caveat to those numbers. And this is coming from the kid who was named the Most Valuable Pitcher at the 16u PGWS Qualifier.

“Metal bats are a totally different story than wood,” Grause said, noting that metal bats are used at the BCS National Championships. “With wood, you can get a couple of hits here and there but with metal, you can just light it up. You can have your days with wood but with metal if you just make contact, it’s flying.”

The Hit Factory PRO pitchers certainly aren’t having any issues with the metal bats. Russo used seven different arms in the first three games and they’re yet to give up a run on 11 hits after 15 innings of work, striking out 21 and walking but four.

2021 lefty Dominic Castellanos threw five innings of one-hit ball with nine strikeouts and no walks; 2021 righty Ryan Skelly struck-out five and allowed only one hit in 2 1/3 innings.

Grause isn’t the only highly regarded 2021 on this roster, of course. Vastine is ranked No. 82 nationally, Russo is at No. 251, Saltsman sits at No. 272, right-hander Alden Segui comes in at No. 287 and Skelly at No. 362; Keaton Howard and Billy “BJ” Graham Jr. are both top-500s.

These players all hail from the Tampa area and seven of them attend Tampa Jesuit High School. There’s a solid core that have been playing together under the Hit Factory PRO banner since their pre-teen years and as should be expected has grown into a very tight-knit group.

“It’s just a brotherhood,” Vastine said with conviction. “We really stay together; we’re one team and we’re not going to switch-up on each other.”

The chemistry with this group is through the roof, Grause contends, and he attributes that to the fact that these teammates are at heart, just really, really good friends. Heck, they’re practically neighbors.

“We’re always on the same page, ready to win games,” he said. “We’re trying to get the best seed we can so we’re set in bracket-play and I feel like we’re setting pretty good right now.”

When asked about the relationships these young players have developed with one another, including teammates who might attend a rival high school, Russo described an environment where, yes, they have become fast friends but it’s gone beyond that. This group is starting to have more of a family feel to it.

“We eat breakfast together, they eat together after games and they’ve really just put themselves into position to be different,” he said.

It’s a resilient group, too, Russo said, and he’s developed a routine that helps the players deal with what can become quite a heavy, mid-summer grind of ballgame after ballgame. When they’re done playing for the day, Russo likes to make them run or, as he said, “I empty the tank.”

After that, it’s time to wind down and replenish and after dinner the kids will get together and play cards or video games, and then they go to bed at an allotted curfew time.

“They wake up the next day and they come ready to play,” Russo said. “We go one game at a time and then we just go game-by-game and that gets us to the next one.”

If the Hit Factory batters keep producing hits (isn’t that what hit factories do?) and the PRO pitchers keep putting up zeroes, these PROs are going to be a difficult bunch to corral over the remainder of the week.

And as Vastine  and Grause both pointed out, this team has put in a lot of hard work with the idea in mind of winning a PG national championship this summer; they missed their shot in Atlanta.

“I feel like we were kind of upset from that last tournament and we were just ready to come out and play and kind of pound other teams,” Grause said. “This tournament, we were definitely going to come out strong.”

That’s the attitude Russo likes his players to have:

“They’re a good group of guys, but the summer is only good for us if we win tournaments,” he concluded. “We’ve gotten a lot of guys looks and some of the guys are getting a lot of attention but I think every time they walk through the gate to get ready to play, it’s a whole different ballgame.”

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