Showcase : : Story
Saturday, June 18, 2011

Challenge prelims offer nice break

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – “He got all of that one.”

That’s the catch-phrase in a popular MLB Network ad-spot that features Perfect Game alum Prince Fielder hitting such a long home run the ball circles the globe and lands back in front of him at home plate.

There were no world travelers hit during the preliminary round of the Rawlings Home Run Challenge at the 2011 Perfect Game National Showcase Saturday morning, but there were plenty of long bombs – along with plenty of smiles and even an occasional mind-game.

The Home Run Challenge is a part of the PG National that is perhaps more about fun than fundamentals. Saturday morning’s preliminaries for six of the 12 PG National teams– in which every player tried to hit as many home runs as he could before committing 10 outs – gave the young prospects a chance to pretend they were Fielder or Josh Hamilton or Jose Bautista.

“I look forward to doing stuff like this; it’s fun,” PG Red’s Joey Gallo said before taking his whacks. “It makes these kinds of showcases fun, just to go out and showoff what you have.”

Gallo, PG’s 12th-ranked national prospect, didn’t win his team championship but got an at-large bid into Saturday night’s 20-player final field.

One competitor who did perform well enough to win his team championship was PG National Purple’s C.J. Hinojosa, the nation’s 18th-ranked prospect from Spring, Texas. Hinojosa hit only three home runs before making his 10th out, but it was good enough to be Purple’s automatic qualifier into the finals.

“I was planning on saving them up for tonight,” Hinojosa joked. “This is my first time swinging the BBCOR (bat) so I’ll come out and swing it a little bit better, hopefully, tonight.”

Hinojosa enjoyed shimself participating in the Challenge, while also insisting the entire PG National experience was enjoyable.

“Everything out here is fun,” he said. “You come out here to play ball – I’ve been playing ball since I was 3½ years old playing with 5-year-olds – and it’s the same game I’ve been playing ever since I was 3.”

Two of the competitions witnessed Saturday morning had to go into “extra innings” – two or more teammates were tied after the preliminary run-through and had to have a homer-off (an extra five-out session).

Royal Blue’s Anthony Alford, Carson Kelly and Perry Rigby each hit four in the initial 10-out session and Alford grabbed the team championship by hitting two more in the extra session.

“I knew I only had to hit two to win it,” Alford said. “I swung it pretty good all day and I just tried to have a nice swing and hit the lower half of the ball.”

And on PG National Red, two extra sessions were needed to determine the team champion and the automatic qualifier to the finals.

Jameis Winston from Hueytown, Ala., who is ranked No. 85 nationally, and Addison Russell from Pace, Fla., ranked No. 8, both hit six bombs in the nitial run-through, went out to shag balls, then both got shutout in their first five-out exra session.

In the second extra session, Russell homered once, and then Winston stepped in, and with four outs hanging over his head, drilled back-to-back shots to win the team championship

“I wanted to end it on the last (playoff round) with a walk-off, but Addison’s tough,” Winston said. “He got into my head. He was out there messing with me when we were out (shagging balls in the outfield).”

The biggest hammer of the morning was toted by Nelson Rodriguez, a 6-3, 215-pound catcher/first baseman from New York City who is playing for PG National White.

Rodriguez, a right-handed hitter, was smashing balls well over the left  and left-center fences, prompting one PG attendant to exclaim, “We’re losing all our balls!” and one of Rodriguez’s PG White teammates to announce, “He’s on our team!”

When Nelson finally laid down his Rawlings BBCOR bat, he had hit 12 bombs, the event’s highest total in the preliminary round.

“I felt very good; I felt great,” Rodriguez said. “This is something like you do in batting practice, a home run derby, so it’s very fun.”

A good time was had by all, and Saturday night’s finals were still hours away.

 “It’s good to meet new people, good to meet other great players and stuff,” Winston said of the experience. “This is baseball and you’ve got to have fun with it. You just have to be relaxed and go out there and have fun.”

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