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Summer Collegiate  | Story  | 7/19/2011

Coastal Plain League All-Star Game

Allan Simpson     
Photo: Tim McMillan/Coastal Plain League

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C.—The Coastal Plain League staged its annual all-star game here Monday. Some 2,600 fans took in the event, which was won in dramatic fashion in the top of the ninth inning when Morehead City first baseman Zach Stephens (Tennessee Tech) launched a two-run homer that turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 win for the National CPL all-star squad.

Stephens earned game MVP honors with the blast, and temporarily stepped out of the shadows of his more-celebrated Morehead City teammate Chase McDonald (East Carolina), who is closing in on a Coastal Plain League triple crown as he leads the 15-team circuit in batting average (.413), is tied for the lead with 38 RBIs and is second in homers (10). By contrast, Stephens is hitting a more modest .279-5-22.

Stephens and McDonald share the first-base duties for Morehead City, and teamed up again at the position for the National all-stars. The powerful 6-foot-4, 260-pound McDonald started at first and drove in the first run for his team with a fourth-inning single, which helped erase an early 2-0 American all-star lead. That set the stage for Stephens, who took over first base from McDonald in the sixth inning.

After Edenton outfielder Brian Blasik (Dayton) opened the decisive final inning with a single for the National team, Stephens turned on a fastball from Gastonia's Derek Epps (Northwestern Oklahoma State), whose 10 saves were second in the league, and drove his game-winning, two-run homer far beyond the left-field fence.

“I knew it was gone,” said Stephens, “I wanted to get a good pitch that I could drive and I did."

Power trio stands out

Much as the power-hitting McDonald was upstaged in the Coastal Plain League all-star game by his own teammate, so were the likes of other all-stars like Wilmington outfielder Daniel Aldrich, Peninsula outfielder Jake Cave and Edenton second baseman Joe Wendle.

Cave started the game at first base for the American squad and went 1-for-2 with an uneventful first-inning single. Aldrich and Wendle were non-factors, as well, as they got just one at-bat apiece while playing in reserve roles.

Though all three were essentially lost in the shuffle in a game that saw all 58 players selected to the event actually participate in the game, Aldrich, Cave and Wendle have been the talk of the Coastal Plain League this summer, for vastly different reasons.

Cave excels despite youth

At 18, Cave was not only the youngest player in the all-star game, but is one of only two recent high-school graduates who are playing in the CPL this summer.

Cave, in fact, became the first high-school product ever to play in the Coastal Plain League after league officials amended by-laws last off-season to allow the inclusion of high-school talent. The Peninsula Pilots are the only team to take advantage of the new talent source for the 2011 season.

The Pilots jumped at the chance to sign Cave, who hit .609 as a high-school senior at Kecoughtan High, along with Menchville High’s Deshorn Lake. Both players are Tidewater area products and were ranked 1-2 in this year’s Virginia prep class. Cave was subsequently selected in the sixth round of the 2011 draft by the New York Yankees, Lake in the 12
th round by the Boston Red Sox.

“It was just dumb luck that the two best high-school kids in Virginia were right in our back yard,” Peninsula coach Hank Morgan, “but both Jake and Deshorn have done a good job of adapting to the league. They’re learning how to handle themselves over a long season in a short period of time.”

Cave went 4-for-4 in his first game with the Pilots and has hardly slowed down as he was third in the league at the all-star break with a .384 batting average.

“I was a little skeptical at first that I could play at this level,” Cave said, “but I got in a groove at the plate pretty quickly and I feel like I can play with these guys now. Playing here this summer has given me a much better idea what I can expect at the next level.”

Cave’s performance to date has not gone unnoticed by scouts and league coaches as he is the consensus top prospect in the CPL this summer, according to most observers.

“He’s the best prospect, no doubt,” says Outer Banks coach Andy Schatzley. “He has the arm strength and he can run, and he definitely has the power. He hit one ball in our park to the opposite field that went over the scoreboard. Plus, he’s a very savvy player.”

Morgan was a little more hesitant in labeling one of his own players as the league’s best talent, but left little doubt that Cave has a bright future.

“If he’s not No. 1,” Morgan said, “then he’s definitely in the conversation. He appears to have all it takes to be a significant player one day.”

Cave might have been drafted as early as the second round this year had he not been so set on attending college at Louisiana State, but the Yankees are expected to make a concerted push to sign Cave as the Aug. 15 signing deadline approaches. To date, the Yankees have seen Cave perform several times this summer, but have not made a meaningful overture to get him under contract as they known it will take a bonus significantly above the recommended slot to have any chance to sign him.

“The Yankees have contacted me,” Cave acknowledged, “but there’s been no pressure for me to sign yet. They’ve been cool about it the way they’ve handled things. I expect everything will come to a head as the Aug. 15 deadline approaches.

“Right now, LSU is what I know. I’ve been in constant contact with coach (Paul) Mainieri.”

Oddly, Cave drew plenty of attention from scouts over his last two years in high school for his exploits as both a pitcher and outfielder, but started Monday’s all-star game for the American team at first base.

He has spent most of the latter part of the summer for the Pilots playing in the outfield, mostly in center field, but started the season at first base while the team awaited the arrival of University of Virginia first baseman Jared King from the College World Series. Consequently, Cave was put on the all-star ballot as a first baseman, only to be selected to start there.

“He played a lot of first base in high school,” Morgan said, “so he can handle himself there. He definitely projects as a center fielder at the next level.”

Cave might have pitched considerably more than he has so far, but at the request of the Yankees, he has curtailed his pitching duties this summer. In three outings, spanning five innings, he had yet to allow a run.

If Cave ends up in college at LSU, he will almost certainly be a two-way player for the Tigers. Should he end up signing with the Yankees, he will almost certainly become a position player only.

“He’s such an impact hitter,” Morgan said. “He stepped right in here, with no adjustments. He has looked like he belonged from the very start.”

Wendle leads No. 1 Steamers

The CPL’s Edenton Steamers are the nation’s No. 1-ranked summer-league team, according to the latest weekly Perfect Game Top 25 summer-league rankings. And no player has been more responsible for the team’s unlikely success than unheralded second baseman Joe Wendle (West Chester, Pa.), perhaps the top candidate for league MVP honors.

Though he wasn’t selected to start at second base for the National squad in the all-star game after being passed over in this year’s baseball draft as a junior out of Division II West Chester (Pa.), Wendle tops the CPL in runs (40), hits (65) and on-base percentage (.478). He is also second in batting average (.406) and fourth in RBIs (31).

“He’s a very solid player in every phase of his game, and very unselfish in his approach,” Edenton coach Dirk Kinney said. “He can put spin on a ball and turn on it, or go the other way when the situation dictates. But overall, he doesn’t profile that well for scouts as there is nothing he really does that is above-average.

“As a Division II player, he has fallen under the radar a bit, but he should be an excellent senior sign a year from now.”

Kinney, a former Arkansas-Little Rock assistant who will assume a scouting job in the Midwest following the CPL season, has a whole roster of mainly obscure players who are cut from the same mould as Wendle, and credits the team’s blue-collar approach as the biggest reason for his team’s strong showing this summer. Overall, the Steamers are 33-9 and rolling in the second half with a 14-1 mark.

“I got into an argument the other day with someone who maintained that we need more players from big-name schools on our roster,” he said, “and I told him that’s not how I recruit my teams. I like small-school guys. They play hard, and our success this year has come because we play so hard.”

Aldrich's power on display

Though Aldrich struck out in his only all-star game at-bat, and has struggled at the plate most of the summer for Wilmington, hitting just .264-3-30 with 45 strikeouts (second in the league), the College of Charleston outfielder put on a show in the CPL’s Home Run Derby Sunday.

He ran away with the competition by slugging a CPL Derby record-tying 18 homers, many of them tape-measure shots.

Aldrich’s closest challenger, Forest City’s Axel Johnson (Texas Christian), entered the final round trailing Aldrich by four home runs. However, he only hit two more long balls in the championship round, resulting in an easy win for Aldrich. A total of 16 competitors from the league’s 15 teams took part in the event.

It was the second Home Run Derby title this summer for Aldrich, who also won the prestigious TD Ameritrade Home Run Derby July 3 in Omaha, Neb., which is held in conjunction with the College World Series.

Aldrich’s father, Charles, who pitched to him in Omaha, was on hand to pitch to his son again in Fayetteville. Of the 18 homers Aldrich launched, 16 were hit with a wood bat and two with aluminum.

Aldrich credits his dad’s steady, familiar delivery for all the success he has enjoyed this summer.

“My dad’s been throwing to me all my life, and I got good pitches to hit,” he said. “He knows where the strong spots in my hitting zone are.”

Wilmington coach Chris Younger says Aldrich has more raw power than anyone in the CPL this summer, and more than any player he has been around in years.

“His numbers don’t show it, though,” Youngberg said. “He’s still working on his swing. As a freshman, he gets impatient. He’s also been impacted by the conditions in Wilmington, where every night the wind howls in from right field.

“That’s held him down, but he’s got a swing you can’t teach. He is something to watch when he gets in a rhythm and swings at pitches in the zone. He even tends to be at his best against better pitching as he hits better against pitchers with higher velocity.”

Aldrich, who initially committed to Wake Forest before transferring to the College of Charleston, near his home in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., missed all of the spring and summer seasons of his freshman season as he underwent shoulder surgery.

After a strong 2011 college season as a red-shirt freshman at Charleston, where he hit a robust .347-22-73 and was a consensus All-American, Aldrich has struggled to achieve consistency and live up to expectations this summer.

“I finished bad during the college season,” he said, “and it carried over to the summer as I have been up and down. I don’t want to make excuses and blame the wind in Wilmington for some of my inconsistency, but it blows in hard every night and is a little intimidating. I’ve hit a lot of balls this summer that might have gone out that got knocked down.”

In his one at-bat Monday, Aldrich struck out on three straight fastballs from Morehead City righthander Shawn Armstrong, the last one a 91-mph heater.

Armstrong, a rising junior at East Carolina who was drafted in June in the 18
th round by the Cleveland Indians, struck out all three batters he faced in the seventh inning for the victorious National squad, and was selected the game’s defensive MVP.

CPL introduces prep players

The step the Coastal Plain League took last offseason to incorporate high-school players into its available talent pool was a move designed mainly to increase the league’s stature among the elite summer-college leagues in the country. But it was also made to counteract the rapidly growing number of summer-college leagues around the country that has resulted in a diminished supply of available college talent.

“I believe that we qualify as outside-the-box thinkers,” said CPL commissioner Pete Bock, “and it’s where we needed to go with our league, especially with the growth of summer baseball and so many quality high-school players in our back yard that are committed to four-year colleges.”

Teams are allowed a maximum of two high-school players, and yet Peninsula was the only CPL team to tap into the new talent source this summer.

“We’re always trying to improve our league’s stature among summer leagues in the country, and this new rule is aimed at doing that,” Morgan said. “We’ve made a lot of progress in that area. The rule has been good for the league, and for our team, in particular.”

While the Cape Cod League is recognized as the clear leader among summer leagues nationally, simply on the basis of the elite college talent it can attract, the Coastal Plain and Northwoods Leagues continue to jockey for position as the leaders of the next group of summer leagues. The Cape League prohibits the use of high-school players, while the Northwoods allow it.

The two summer leagues that most aggressively recruit high-school talent are the California Collegiate and West Coast leagues, and those leagues have made significant headway in the last 2-3 years in climbing the hierarchy of summer leagues.

A twist in the high-school rule that the Coastal Plain enacted in its use of high-school talent is the requirement that any player signed to a contract must commit to a two-year deal so he would be mandated to return to the league following his freshman year.

“Hank was the first one to take and run with this rule,” CPL assistant commissioner Justin Sellers said. “Hopefully, more and more teams will start to use it next summer.”

When the CPL was formed 15 years ago, with six clubs, there were only seven other recognized true summer college leagues in existence—the Alaska, Cape Cod, Central Illinois, Great Lakes, New England Collegiate, Northwoods and Valley leagues. All are still active, though the CICL has since morphed into the Prospect League.

Now there are more than 30 recognized summer leagues nationally, and the competition for talent has increased exponentially.

“College summer baseball is now where minor league baseball was 20-25 years ago,” said Bock, who was a minor league general manager before creating the Coastal Plain League in 1997. “There are so many communities around the country that want baseball teams, and it has led to tremendous growth in summer baseball.

“It used to be that there weren’t anywhere near enough slots to place all the top college players. All that’s changed now with so many more leagues, and we’re at a point where there aren’t as many players to go around. You need to be more careful than ever how your league is perceived by college coaches, how you treat your players, to get the better players. The college coach now has a lot more say where kids go to play.”

Arms down

The number of quality arms in the Coastal Plain League is considered down from a year ago, when 6-foot-6 Fayetteville righthander Carter Capps (Mt. Olive, N.C.) was judged the league’s best prospect after his fastball peaked at 97 mph in the 2010 all-star game. He was a third-round pick of the Seattle Mariners in this year’s draft.

The best velocity in this year’s all-star game was turned in by another Fayetteville righthander, Cody Davis, a 5-foot-10 product of the University of Tampa. Davis’ fastball was a steady 91-92 mph, and touched 93 once.

Unlike Capps, though, Davis went undrafted this year, though there were rumblings among some three dozen scouts gathered Monday that Davis would be a primary target to be signed as a non-drafted free agent prior to the conclusion of the 2011 CPL season. Davis, whose fastball has peaked this summer at 95 mph, leads the league with 12 saves.

Just as no pitcher created a buzz among scouts with a superior velocity, no player turned heads at the 60-yard dash competition prior to the game.

Three players were clocked in 6.65 seconds, including league stolen base leader Ryan Brenner (Miami, Ohio), who walked twice in the all-star game in his role as the National leadoff hitter. He was successful on one of two stolen-base attempts.

Brenner was gunned down by American catcher Joe Jackson (The Citadel) on his first attempt, and was successful on his second and came around to score his team’s first run of the game. He has been successful on 26 of 32 attempts for Edenton during the regular season after finishing second in the nation among NCAA Division I players during the spring with 39.

Kinney indicated Brenner had been hobbled for a week and didn’t run his best in the 60. Brenner has reportedly been clocked as fast as 6.5 second over 60 yards.

“He’s mainly a singles guy,” Brenner said, “but can turn a single into a triple in a hurry with his speed.”

Wilson outfielder Ryan Mathews was also timed in 6.65 seconds, and his clocking is noteworthy as he also leads the CPL with 11 hoime runs. He is hitting .279 with eight stolen bases on the season for the Tobs after playing sparingly in the spring at North Carolina State.

When the ninth inning of the all-star game began, preliminary word was circulating that Fayetteville second baseman Eric Grabe (Tampa) was going to be named the game's offensive MVP. It would have been a fitting tribute to a three-year CPL standout and Fayetteville home-town favorite who had sparked the American all-stars to a 2-1 advantage, going 2-for-2, driving in a run and scoring himself.

Stephens ruined that scenario, when he went deep in the ninth with a runner aboard, converting an impending National all-star 2-1 loss into a sudden 3-2 win for his team.

Grabe knew that his chances of winning the award were doomed.

“Honestly, I laughed,” Grabe told the Fayetteville Observer, the local paper. “I knew what was at stake. A few of the guys looked at me and said, ‘Well, there goes your MVP.’

“I was definitely disappointed for Eric,” added American manager Darrell Handelsman, also of Fayetteville. “As soon as (Stephens) hit that ball, I knew he was screwed. But you have to give that kid credit.”