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The fabric of a team

Tournaments : : Story
Jeff Dahn        
Published: Tuesday, July 02, 2013

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Even at events that are as rain-plagued as the 16u PG BCS Finals and PG WWBA 2017 Grads or 14u National Championship have been this week, it's still easy enough to spot the teams that are going to seriously challenge for a Perfect Game national championship. Call it recognizing the fabric of a team -- how it's built and what its character and personality is.

In fact, the task of determining the fabric of a team can be made easier when watching how it contends with long rain delays and rushing from one field to another as games are rescheduled -- all the while managing to maintain its edge. The Houston Heat Black are a good case in point.

The Heat Black, playing in the 16u PG BCS Finals, pretty much mowed through their six pool-play opponents en route to a 6-0 record and a spot in the playoffs -- if the weather ever allows them to be played. They've hit, they've pitched, they've stole bases and they've fielded flawlessly. The evidence points to a team that was built to succeed at a challenging tournament made even more challenging by all the delays, postponements and cancellations.

"This group has been together for awhile and the main thing that we try to do is keep them ready, keep them focused and go one game at a time in this thing; it's a tough, tough tournament," Heat Black head coach Jeremy Knox said Tuesday afternoon after his team was actually able to get a game in the books.

"The Marucci teams are great, the South Florida Elite are great -- everybody's tough -- so we just try to go one game at a time and hopefully we end up in the dance at the end. You always want to do well, but we don't ever talk about championships. Of course we want to win one, but we just play the game the right way each time, and hopefully we come out on top at the end."

All of Houston Heat Baseball's teams play in the Texas Premier Baseball League and Premier Baseball sets up its national championship events using the same format as the one used at the PG BCS Finals with two separate sets of pool-play games. Knox feels like that may give his team a leg-up on the competition at this Perfect Game BCS Finals national championship event.

"We've been prepared for it," he said. "It's a tough way to kind of grind it out and mix and match but we've been through it before and so I think that's why we're having a little bit of success so far down here."

The Heat Black dusted off its first three pool opponents by a combined score of 31-4, which included a 20-2 win over the IBAHS Knights in their tournament-opener on Friday. They faced what was their toughest test in the first game of their second set of pool-play games when they snuck past the Easton Rockets, 2-0, in a classic pitcher's duel.

Heat Black right-hander Nick Perez (2015, Austin, Texas) threw a complete game, three-hit shutout with five strikeouts with only one walk and one hit-batsmen. Perez, who also hits a ton and plays third base, is the No. 50-ranked top national prospect in the class of 2015.

Easton Rockets right-handers Triston McKenzie (2015, Royal Palm Beach, Fla.) and Ryan Nolan (2015, Martin County, Fla.) were pretty good themselves, combining on a five-hitter with five strikeouts and two walks while not allowing an earned run.

Wins of 15-0 and 7-2 over the So Cal National Travel Team and the Florida Surge, respectively, followed for the Heat Black.

"We've been together now for three years, four years with the same nucleus of guys, with the exception of one or two," Knox said. "Basically, they're used to the format from being here before and they want to play, and I'm just letting them play the game."

It's difficult in this analysis to determine which aspect of the Heat Black's game has been the dominant: hitting pitching for fielding. They are hitting .416 (67-for-161) as a team, although they have only 12 extra-base hits; 10 pitchers combined for a 1.20 ERA with 36 strikeouts in 35 innings; and 149 total fielding chances were handled with only one error (.993) and seven double-plays were turned. They were also successful on 13 of 14 stolen base attempts.

Eight Heat Black batters are hitting .417 or better, led by Ryan Newman (2015, Spring, Texas) at .700 (7-for-10 with six RBI and eight runs scored); Jake Almendarez (2015, Pearland) at .615 (8-for-13); Perez at .600 (6-for-10) and Ryan Leftwich (2015, Cypress, Texas) at .545 (6-for-11).

Every pitcher Knox has trotted out there has been effective, it seems.

"I've been fortunate to have some good arms with this group with (Cameron) Kremers, (Nick) Perez, (Austin) Boyles, (Neal) Bhatia and (Kendal) Jefferies," Knox said. "We've got a lot of arms and I'm lucky to have them, and now I'm just trying to keep them fresh."

It's probably important to point out another player on the Heat Black roster who plays a pretty big role in the team's success. Middle-infielder Kody Clemens (2015, Houston), the son of seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens and younger brother of minor-leaguer Koby Clemens and Texas Longhorn and 2012 Perfect Game All-American Kacy Clemens, is already making his presence known while fitting nicely into the fabric of this team.

Clemens is ranked the nation's 129th overall prospect in the class of 2015 and that class's No. 1 middle-infielder. He is ranked 16-1 in the state of Texas.

"The really great thing about this team is there aren't any cliques," Knox said. "We've got the star power with Cody Clemens, and Cody -- hats off to him. He could be kind of the big-league guy and big-league everyone, but he blends right in and they all just enjoy each other and have fun.

"That's really the main thing of why I think it works, is that they all enjoy each other and they don't want to be that guy that brings the ship down. They just want to compete and push each other, and that's what great about them."

Knox said that Roger Clemens helps out with the team -- at least as much as his time allows -- just as he did with the Houston Banditos when Kacy played with that organization the last couple of years.

"Roger will throw BP to the guys sometimes and he'll pull our pitchers aside and talk with them," Knox said. "It's always great having Roger around; he's very hands-on and that's a great experience for our kids."

Knox has been with the Houston Heat Baseball organization for five years and has coached this same group of young prospects since they were 13 years old. It's been quite a journey through numerous Perfect Game tournaments for the teenagers and it will continue when they compete at the PG WWBA 2015 Grads or 16u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., July 12-19.

"What I'm trying to do with group -- I mean, it's tough in Texas but that's not the only baseball (being played)," Knox said. "I try to show them the entire baseball world and show them the big picture, and it's always great to see someone you don't know and see other talent from across the country. It's a good experience for them to say, 'Hey, there is somebody that can do some of the same things that I do; what do I need to do to get better?'

"This is our third year at a Perfect Game event and you can't beat the exposure," he concluded. "Our kids like the challenge and they seem to get excited every time we come here, so I can't ask for anything else."

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