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Tournaments | Story | 7/17/2019

Cards answer all the questions

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Paul Shibley (Perfect Game)

FORT MYERS, Fla. – The question most likely started as a whisper after the first day of play at this week’s Perfect Game 16u BCS National Championship and grew into more of a murmur after day-two. And then, by the time three days and four pool-play games were in the books, it was finally being asked out loud.

Who are these guys?

As it turns out, the Springfield, Mass.-based Western Mass Cardinals really aren’t that mysterious or unrecognizable after all. There is, of course, going to be some anonymity when a team is thrust upon a PG national championship tournament stage with more than 60 of the top 16u teams in the country for the first time; that’s to be expected.

And even as they arrived at Cypress Lake High School for their fifth pool-play game at the PG national championship tournament Wednesday morning, this deck of Cards were still largely unknown despite a 4-0-0 record with a run differential of 28-6 through four pool-play games.

So who are these guys? Why did they leave the relative comforts of home back in New England to come to Southwest Florida to play a little baseball in the middle of July? For the same reason as everybody else. Why do you ask?

“We came down here to get college looks and just to continue our baseball and try to get better,” 2020 outfielder/utility Mike Russell told PG Wednesday morning. “We’ve been a team for a while now and we’re all brothers and we’re just having fun, pretty much.”

The Cardinals are coached by former big-league pitcher Patrick Strange and he’s very upfront about what he wants to accomplish with this group.

It’s a team Strange has been coaching since they were youngsters, a group he calls a “bonified town team” from the Springfield-Westfield, Mass., area. He kept this group together through the players’ middle-school years and then let them go their own way once they got into high school.

Not satisfied with the exposure they were receiving back in New England, Strange decided to bring them back together and enter them into some more high-profile events, so here they are, living their own version of a baseball dream near the beaches of Southwest Florida.

“We’re just trying to play better competition then what we see where we’re from,” 2020 outfielder/catcher Paul Shibley said on Wednesday. “We played our last tournament together two years ago in Myrtle Beach when we were all getting into high school and we were just doing something to have fun at the end of the year.

“Now, two years later, we’re here, and we wanted to come down here to see if we can get some (college) looks,” he continued. “We’re just a bunch of kids from Mass doing our own little thing; you just don’t have this up in Mass.”

Most of these teenagers have spent their last couple of summers playing American Legion ball and mostly doing things locally with their high school teammates. Strange emphasized once again that this is all about getting his players noticed and getting them included in PG’s massive prospect database and he wasn’t necessarily concerned with wins and losses.

“I knew we would be competitive,” he said. “We may not be as talented as some of the power programs down here but I’ve got a tough of kids; they can play ball. They’re not all going to ‘wow’ you with their talent but they’re tough kids and they’ve been playing high-level baseball since they were five years old. They’re not going to run away from anybody.”

Most of these young guys call the Massachusetts cities and towns of Springfield, West Springfield and Westfield their hometowns. None of the 13 players Strange has used here this week is ranked by PG and none have college commitments yet – but they can play.

2020s Paul Shibley and Tyler Sternowski, and 2021s Ryan Russell, Frankie Ferrentino, Jesus Cruz, Yowin Nunez and Winyon Nunez have been swinging the most potent bats though the first half of the tournament. 2020 right-handers Owen Bullen and Mike Russell, 2021 righty Brian Strange and 2021 lefty David Tirrell were the most effective on the mound during the early going.

“We came into all these games knowing that we’re probably not as good as half of these kids here,” Shibley said. “But we came into these games thinking like they were Game 7 of the World Series every single time: two outs, bottom of nine. We’re trying to win; that’s what our goal is.”

Strange felt that his guys played about as well as they’re capable of playing in those first four games, just in the way they were making plays, throwing strikes and getting timely hits, which is, of course, the things baseball teams do when they’re winning. Most importantly, the players were completely enjoying themselves and their winning ways.

“We’re all just a bunch of boys, you know what I mean?” Shibley said. “Picture 12 brothers, 13 brothers in one house; we just have fun. We laugh so much; we yell so much – we just have fun.”

Some of the wind came out of the Cardinals’ sails Wednesday morning when Merc Elite Baseball out of Cranston, R.I. – another New England outfit – used a five-run fifth and a six-run seventh to bury Western Mass, 12-1. This game can certainly be humbling, acting like your best friend one day and your worst enemy the next.

Patrick Strange is no stranger to baseball’s ins and outs having played professionally for seven seasons (1998-2004). He was a second-round pick of the Mets in the 1998 MLB June Amateur Draft right out of Springfield High School and the right-hander pitched in 11 games for the big-league Mets in 2002-03.

His message to his players is in his words, “pretty loud and clear.” He was a high school player from Springfield, Mass., who arrived in Florida for a showcase event as a virtual unknown, out-performed just about every other kid at the event and returned home as one of the country’s top prospects.

It’s all about taking advantage of opportunities when they’re presented and he feels like this group of Cardinals is doing that this week.

“I would say we have a handful of guys who definitely could play some college ball and I think we have some fringe D-I guys in there,” Strange said. “That’s why we’re here, to see how they fare against the guys who are going to these big schools and hopefully shine out and make a name for some of them.”

The coaches, players and their families are able to treat this baseball adventure as a vacation, as well, and Strange said when it was first pitched to the parents the point was made that there is a lot to see and do down here on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

“We got home from our 8 o’clock (a.m.) games the last two days and went straight to the beach, straight to the pool,” Shibley said. “With my parents, we always do one vacation every year so this is our vacation this year. It’s just really a fun experience.”

So who are these guys? Why did they leave New England to sweat-out a week spent playing a little baseball in Southwest Florida?

“We’re here in Florida and I just feel like everything’s loose,” Mike Russell said. “We’re just (being) ourselves and I think if we keep rolling we can pretty much play with anybody. … We’re all heart and we play with confidence and we just go out there and do it.”

The Western Mass Cardinals wrap-up pool-play Thursday morning against the Tallahassee-based Team Tomahawk Select 2021 (3-2-0). That game’s result will determine the Cardinals’ playoff fate, but it’s important to remember that Strange didn’t bring this team here to see how many games it could win,

“My goal as a coach is to get at least a few of these guys to play some college ball for somebody; that’s been my goal throughout,” he said. “The rest of the kids are going to have a good time and have some great memories and the kids that are going to move on, they have a chance to get exposure in front of the right people. If we can get a few scholarships and get some guys into schools, that’s my goal and it always has been.”

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