ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – It was unfortunate but elite 2022 outfielder Paxton Kling is wise enough to know it’s all part of the game when you choose to perform on one huge stage just a day before jumping on another huge stage – one a PG WWBA national championship tournament and the other the PG National Showcase.
Kling was playing all-out for the Canes National 17u in one of the semifinal games at the PG WWBA 17u National Championship up in Marietta, Ga., on Tuesday when he got hit by a pitch in his left foot. It was a misfire that may even have broken his big toe; he had not yet had it X-rayed on Wednesday. The Canes won that semi only to be beaten by the East Cobbs Astros, 6-4, in the blockbuster event’s championship game.
“It hit me square in the foot and it was [painful] but I kept playing,” Kling told PG Wednesday, speaking from a back room at Tropicana Field, the site of this year’s PG National and the home of the 2020 American League champion Tampa Bay Rays. “Then I took my sock off and it was all bruised and everything.”
It was serious enough that Kling was walking with a noticeable limp Wednesday morning when he arrived at The Trop. He was unable to participate in any of Wednesday morning’s four-team workout session and he and his dad, Craig Kling, decided to leave St. Petersburg a day early.
The Klings call Roaring Spring, Pa., home, a small burg that sits about 100 miles east of Pittsburgh. Paxton will be senior in the fall at Central High School and he’s bringing a lot of attention – not to mention a lot of interested scouts – to the school based on his No. 19 national ranking in the class of 2022.
A 6-foot-2, 195-pound outfielder (he’s ranked as the No. 5 OF prospect in the country} and a Louisiana State commit, Kling possesses elite athletic skills based on the 6.45-second 60-yard dash he turned in at the 2020 WWBA Workout Showcase to go with a 92 mph outfield velo and a 99 mph exit velo.
It’s a shame that Paxton Kling was unable to improve on those numbers inside domed, climate-controlled Tropicana Field on Wednesday but he was thrilled to be here all the same.
“It means a lot to me; all the hard work is starting to pay off and I’m not done yet,” Kling said of receiving the invitation to the PG National Showcase. “I get to travel all over the place for all this stuff, so that’s awesome. It’s just playing the game that I’ve loved right from the beginning.”
Craig Kling noted that his son is just one of those naturally born athletes who dabbled in football and played basketball until he got into high school when he decided to concentrate his efforts on the diamond. As his dad said, you could probably put something in Paxton’s hand that he no experience with and he’d take one look and figure out exactly what he’s supposed to do with it very quickly.
His dad couldn’t say for sure where Paxton’s innate love for the game of baseball came from. It wasn’t something that was forced upon him but something that came from inside and something he just couldn’t ever get enough of.
“[He’s] always striving to try to get better,” Craig told PG Wednesday. “This game is humbling and he knows it. There’s always something else that he needs to work on and strive to get better at and work through.”
Craig Kling recalled a time when Paxton was 6 or 7 years old and he was participating in a practice session with a little league team that featured kids who were five years older than his son. The coach called him over and told him to take a couple of swings, and afterwards that same coach called the team together and told them, hey guys, that’s the way you attack a baseball.
“I think that when you have one of those eye-opening events, it sort of started there,” Craig said. “For him, with travel baseball, he was always the top guy on the team. When is he not going to be the top guy on the team? It was always, ‘He’s not that good’ was kind of my thought.
“Then we finally got to the point about two years ago that, hey, he’s pretty good; we’ve kind of come to that realization,” he added. “We try to be humble about it and that’s what we try to teach him: be confident but be humble about it.”
Kling was rostered with the PG Gray Team at the National, a squad that boasts quite a bit of firepower in the dugout, even without Kling. While he is the highest ranked prospect at No. 19, he can count amongst his teammates the right-hander Cooper Dossett (No. 69-ranked, Arkansas commit); shortstop Cade McGarrh (No. 75, Texas Tech); right-hander Hunter Sloop (No. 76, Tennessee); shortstop Colby Shelton (No. 84, Clemson) and shortstop Travis Sanders (No. 88, Texas Tech) among the other top-100s.
“I think the most enjoyable part about it is just playing the game of baseball,” Kling said about his PG experiences. “We all started when we were younger and it’s still a game that I love and I’m going to continue to love and just keep playing it...
“You don’t stop learning in baseball,” he added. “You go through slumps, you go through injuries, you go through a bunch of stuff and you don’t stop learning how to be better.”
Paxton Kling kicked-off his travel ball career playing with the Irwin, Pa.-based Flood City Elite, a team with which he earned three PG all-tournament selections in 2019-20. He joined the Canes National 17u in 2020 where he’s earned all-tournament recognition four more times – and counting – in 2020-21; he has also been a part of two PG WWBA championship teams with the Canes in the last two years.
“He had the skill set and he had a coach [at Flood City] that was very good at teaching him the mental side of the game; the Flood City group that he was with was very instrumental on helping him develop,” Craig said. “But when he went to the Canes he was now playing with 25 other guys who are at the same level playing in almost a college atmosphere already. It allowed him to develop all-around as a player/person.”
And what a roster this Canes National 17u boasts with other highly-ranked 2022s like left-hander Jackson Ferris (No. 6), righty Brock Porter (No. 7), middle-infielder Cole Young (No. 11) and lefty Tristan Smith (No.12) among a sizable group that is also here at the National Showcase this week.
Paxton cherishes the time he gets to spend with the Canes and there will be more to come this summer. He called the environment surrounding the program “just different” and although the roster is stacked with talented individuals who will either play in college or professionally post-high school, they can still manage to play as a team in pursuit of PG WWBA and PG World Series national championships.
“It makes everyone play at the next level; it makes everyone work harder and be better,” Kling said. “Everyone’s competitive on the team so they want to be ‘the guy’. The thing is we all play team baseball. We’ll do our job and we’ll do everything [we’re asked]; we all want to do the best.”
Kling has the commitment to LSU and even with a coaching change in Baton Rouge brought about by the retirement of Hall of Famer Paul Mainieri and the hiring of Jay Johnson from Arizona, he doesn’t expect anything to change on that front.
“I’ve talked with Coach Johnson a couple of times,” Kling said. “I really loved Coach Mainieri and I really loved Coach [Nolan] Cain when I went down there – they were my guys – but I just have to figure everything out and just move onto the next step.”
Slipping on the “dad cap” one more time, Craig Kling said he and his family – which includes wife Beth, daughter McKayla and another son Lleyton – have always tried to be super supportive of Paxton’s pursuits.
Craig laughed and said he just tries to stay out of the way, sometimes shaking his head at the heights Paxton has already achieved. He is, as might be expected on his prospect ranking alone, a strong contender for an East Team roster spot at next month’s PG All-American Classic at Petco Park in San Diego.
It kind of boggles the mind, this small-town Pennsylvania kid reaching these heights. Craig remembers thinking early in the process that it was always “Very difficult to get there, probably not going to get there” type of thing but Paxton just kept working and is achieving what was once the unthinkable.
Paxton Kling isn’t alone when it comes to producing somewhat surprising results, as a detailed look at some of the performances during Wednesday’s workout session with just four teams – eight more will follow in the coming days – tells you.
Somewhat unheralded Gavin Turley, an Oregon State commit out of Chandler, Ariz., is likely to see his ranking rise from its current position at No. 110 after he ran a blazing 6.29-second 60 and threw 97 mph from the outfield, both top-two efforts on the day.
Dominic Hellman, while certainly not under the radar as the No. 31-ranked prospect in the ’22 class and an Oregon State commit, put on a batting practice display that had the scouts and just about everyone else in attendance buzzing throughout the afternoon.
“This ’22 class I think is a special class; there’s a lot of very special individuals in it,” Craig Kling said. “[Paxton has] always been the one that he’d go to the field, he’d walk off the field and he’d probably know three or four guys from the other team – all the time even from when he was little...
“It’s really special just to see how these guys support each other and I think just enjoy being on the field and interacting with each other.”
Craig Kling said the road traveled just to get to the PG National Showcase has provided an enjoyable ride even if his son was unable to perform as he had hoped here this week. Craig admitted that it can get a little intense and even tiresome at times with all the travel, noting that some of these young guys haven’t enjoyed a home-cooked meal in more than a month.
It’s a grind, he said, but it’s something many of them might want to start getting used to. It might just become a part of their everyday life once their high school careers are over.
Paxton Kling wouldn’t have it any other way:
“What I’ve taken away from [the experiences] is just loving the game and respecting it,” he said. “Once you respect the game it will respect you back and you’ll just keep playing well...I try not to look too far ahead; I’m just trying to play my game now and just do my thing now. I’ve still got high school ball next year and I’m just going to focus on that. Whatever happens after that happens.”