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Monday, March 19, 2012

Blaze like spot in northern lights

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

PHOENIX, Ariz. – The game itself was for show, but this was unquestionably serious show. There were, after all, skills to be flashed and people to impress.

More than 100 scouts and other Major League Baseball front office personnel spread themselves throughout the Maryvale Baseball Park - the spring training home of the Milwaukee Brewers - on a sunny but very chilly Monday afternoon in the Valley to watch a team of mostly Canadian prospects take on a team of 100 percent Dominican Republic prospects.

Based on reputation alone, the youngsters from the Dominican Prospect League (DPL) were expected to be very competitive against the historically strong Langley Blaze organization, based in British Columbia, Canada.

But in an exhibition game such as this Perfect Game-sponsored contest, the scoreboard wasn’t even turned on. The final score simply didn’t matter. Nothing mattered, in fact, except for taking pride in performing for your country and also doing your thing in front of the scouts.

“We played down in Tucson for about two or three days and we played some colleges and some local teams from up in Canada to get ready for this,” Langley Blaze starting center-fielder Justin Black said. “It’s not every day you get to play against the Dominican national team in a minor league complex. It’s a great honor to be picked for this team and get to come out here and perform and play against these guys.”

Black spoke to Perfect Game before the game started, and about an hour later he hit a long home run for the Blaze. Few people knew what the score was at the time and the players like Black, who hails from Billings, Mont., and not British Columbia, couldn’t have seemed to care less.

“I feel like we’re really well-built and all these guys have played with each other, so we have good chemistry,” Black said. “We’re just going to go out there and play hard and smack some balls around, hopefully, and show these guys a little competition.”

This is the 10th season Langley Blaze founder and Arizona Diamondback scout Doug Mathieson has brought a team to Arizona for its own version of spring training, and the second straight year Mathieson worked with PG and the DPL to put his squad up against a talent-rich Dominican squad.

“It’s an unbelievable experience. They’ll go home and they won’t be intimidated by anybody,” Mathieson said. “These, obviously, are very talented players and we played them last year … and we worked well together to facilitate this sort of thing. What kid wouldn’t want to play in a 12,000-seat stadium with future pro guys and get in front of the scouts.

“They might be here to see (DPL top prospect Gustavo) Cabrero on the other team, but if you happen to step up, why not? Somebody will take a look at you. You take advantage of your opportunities.”

Black, who has committed to the University of Nebraska, is just one of many top prospects Mathieson as brought to the Valley. Some of the others include B.C. prospects third baseman Billy Germaine (Hill College) and shortstop Jesse Hodges (Grayson County College).

The roster is top-heavy with highly ranked Montana recruits, including Black, right-hander Andrew Sopko (Gonzaga), left-hander Caleb Frare (Utah) and outfielder Matt Hape (uncommitted). Two top prospects also hail from Anchorage, Alaska.

Hodges and Germaine played last summer for the Canadian National Team. Black, Hape, Sopko and Frare played with the Northwest Scout team at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in October and Hodges and Germaine played with Team British Columbia at the same event.

Mathieson said there are right around 25 Blaze alumni playing in MLB spring training camps this spring.

He brought 42 players with him to Arizona this spring and because of his Diamondbacks scouting connection he feels at home when discussing recruiting with anyone. He knows most of the scouts working in the Northwest, including Alaska, and uses that to the Blaze’s advantage.

“The scouts in the Northwest will send us the best players and we also get them from recruiting players while putting together teams through Perfect Game in Florida,” Mathieson said.

Mathieson won’t pull punches when he talks about the talent level of this year’ Langley team.

“Traditionally it’s been extremely strong, but this has been a down year for talent – it’s more of a college year than a draft year,” he said. “If you look at the (past) stats for the Perfect Game, we’ve had quite a few big-leaguers that came through Florida (the WWBA World Championship) but I would say this year is a little bit of a down year and next year’s going to be a better year.”

As Mathieson pointed out, the majority of the Blaze seniors this season will more likely than not be playing college baseball in 2013, an achievement that requires some bell-ringing in and of itself. On a chilly morning in northwest Phoenix on Monday, the only thing that mattered to one Langley Blaze player was winning a ballgame, whether anyone was keeping score or not.

“We’re all competitors, so I guess we all have expectations. We all want to win because nobody likes losing,” the outfielder Black said. “But here again, this is the Dominican national team and these guys have a lot of hype coming into this. We’re just going to try to compete with them, is what I guess we’re going to try to do, but we always want to win. It’s no fun losing.”

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