Tournaments | Story | 9/21/2019

Matadors' arms took the lead

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Finnegan Wall (Perfect Game)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The PFA Matadors out of Pasadena, Calif., arrived at the Surprise Stadium complex on Friday looking every bit like a team that could contend for a title at this week’s Perfect Game WWBA Underclass Fall National Championship Protected by G-Form.

They had D-I arms on their roster – two from the class of 2021 along with one 2022 and counting – and had beaten their first two pool-play opponents by a combined score of 7-2.

And the most favorable news of all was that one of their top 2021 pitchers, right-handed UC Irvine commit Finnegan Wall along with right-handed 2022 U. of San Diego commit Angelo Aleman would be on the mound for game three Saturday morning at Camelback Ranch.

After beating the San Diego Hustle, 5-1, Friday morning on a combined six-hitter from 2021 right-hander Gavin Meyer and 2021 lefty Keller Strauss, and MBA Utah, 2-1, Friday afternoon on a combined five-hitter from ’21 right-hander Beto Beltran, ’21 lefty Albert Robles and ’22 left-hander Julian Cazares, the table looked to be set.

“The way we’ve got to play baseball, you’ve got to make sure, obviously, that you catch and you throw and you throw strikes,” PFA Matadors head coach Edgar Garcia told PG Saturday morning from the Dodgers’ side of the Camelback Ranch complex.

“The pitchers, give them all the credit because they threw strikes and when you throw strikes balls get put into play, and if you play defense, that’s good baseball.”

That certainly was a recipe for success on Friday. Meyer threw 3 2/3 innings of shutout, four-hit ball while striking out four before giving way to Strauss in the opener; Strauss gave up one earned run on two hits in 2 1/3 innings, striking out three.

Garcia handed the ball to Beltran to start the second game, and the top-500 Long Beach State commit responded with three hitless shutout innings, striking out five.

“I was able to step right in,” Beltran told PG on Saturday. “I like the competition; I love being on the bump and I think that’s where belong; it feels great to be out there.”

When asked about his fellow pitchers on the PFA Matadors’ roster, Beltran’s eyes seemed to widen:

“We’ve got some really great arms,” he said. “We’ve got a couple of guys throwing high 80s (mph), touching 90s and we’ve got other guys that just pound the zone. … I think it really helps the pitchers just pumping  strikes and letting it go.”

Garcia, who does some coaching at the high school level and also some scouting for the Atlanta Braves, explained that for a variety of reasons related mostly to the time of year, it was difficult to bring everyone he would have liked to see play to the tournament. But at the same time, he was happy with the guys who were on board.

“Some of these guys have been playing together, with a few new additions,” he said. “Friends want to play with friends, and I know some people who wanted to join and I let them come and play, but generally it’s a group that I’ve had for a little while. … It’s fun to see these guys develop into what they’re becoming.”

And, most importantly, it’s a team that really seems to enjoy being around one another, which isn’t unusual among the teams from Southern California that frequent the PG tournaments held in Phoenix.

Wall, the top-500 UC Irvine commit, talked about he and his teammates having a “really good connection” with each other, whether they’re getting it done on the field or hanging out at the hotel before and after games. And they really enjoyed what they were doing this weekend.

“I was just talking to my buddy Angelo (Aleman), and any day we’re out on the ballfield is a great day, you know,” Wall said. “I asked him how he was doing and he said, ‘It’s a great day, we’re on a ballfield,’ and that’s exactly right. Beautiful fields, beautiful day, it doesn’t get any better than this. I love being out here every day.”

PFA stands for Performance Fitness for Athletes, a program founded by Dave Coggin in Upland, Calif., about a decade ago, and one which offers elite training methods in baseball and overall fitness. The emphasis is on baseball and this is the first year Garcia hooked up with PFA and put several travel ball teams.

The PFA Matadors roster that was at the Underclass Fall Championship this week was constructed with a combination of players from Garcia’s 2021 and 2022 teams; it included seven 2021s, five 2022s and a lone 2023 in right-hander/corner infielder Gavin Eddy.

While admitting that he sometimes acts like a big kid around his players, Garcia isn’t ashamed to say that he has a great time with them, just hanging out and playing video games or whatever it takes to build camaraderie. And when they travel, they have their own little ritual.

“It’s funny because every time we got out somewhere, like when we went to Georgia, we call it our Walmart runs,” he said with a chuckle. “Everywhere we go, the first thing we do is we have to have a Walmart run, and they’ll load up on snacks. …

“So when we come to these events, we’re always looking forward to it and we’re very excited every time we come out here,” he added. “They like to get away from home.”

Garcia decided to let Wall start Saturday morning’s important pool-play game against Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Team Dinger 2021, and for good reason. Wall is an important two-way player in this lineup but Garcia decided to put Wall out on the mound because Garcia had received a special request.

“Finn just committed last week, but he was already scheduled to come out here and UCI called me and they wanted to see him pitch,” the head coach said. “Even though they’ve already committed, the school where they commit to still want to see their player play against great competition. In high school you don’t get that as much but when you come to events like this, the competition is better.

“And they want to see them compete; they want to see what they got,” he added. “They’re excited to see him and at the same time he’s improving when he sees better hitting.”

Wall didn’t disappoint, throwing 1 2/3 no-hit innings, striking out three and walking one. But a very strange thing happened on the way to an anticipated victory when the Matadors’ defense broke down in the bottom of the first, committing three errors that led to three unearned runs which led to an eventual 9-2 Team Dinger victory.

The loss – and especially the nine runs Team Dinger scored – kept the PFA Matadors out of the playoffs. It can't be overlooked, however, how well they played for the most part, with strong offensive efforts turned in by Strauss, Christian Miranda, Nicolo DiFerdinanado and Andres Mitat in addition to the strong pitching performances. Sometimes it just comes down to making the plays on defense when they need to be made.

“When you go to these Perfect Game events, you’re going to have great competition; you’re going to have good teams,” Garcia said. “… When you come to these events, you have to win, win, win or you don’t advance; that’s the unfortunate part. You’re going to have to throw your best pitchers (during pool play) because you can’t save any pitching; you can’t advance if you don’t win that first game.”

Or, in this case, if you don’t win that third game.

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