Tournaments : : Story
Saturday, October 05, 2013

Bigger the better for Rivera

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Perfect Game tournament directors don’t engage in naming pre-event all-tournament teams. Such an endeavor involving idle speculation simply wouldn’t be time well spent.

But since PG began naming post-event all-tournament teams in 2012, one 2014 Florida prospect has emerged as a name you could pencil in before a single game is played. The Florida Burn’s Michael Rivera is about as much of a sure thing to make an all-tournament roster as any prospect that has competed in a PG tournament since the 2012 Memorial Day holiday weekend.

Rivera, a 5-foot-10, 180-pound sweet swinging and slicking fielding catcher/third baseman from Venice, Fla., and a senior at Venice Senior High School, is looking for more accolades and championship trophies again this weekend.

He is here with his longtime teammates on the Florida Burn Orange looking to defend their championship at the PG WWBA Florida Qualifier. The Florida Qualifier champion earns a paid invitation to the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., Oct. 24-28, a prize the Burn won last year. Rivera wouldn’t miss it for the world.

“I get to be out here with my best friends playing baseball; there’s nothing better than that,” he said Saturday morning before the Burn Orange played its tournament-opener at the Player Development 5-Plex.. “It’s been great; playing baseball every day, you can’t really complain about that.

“Everybody’s good here but it gets better when we get to the (playoffs) and we can play the teams we’re used to playing.”

If history serves as any indicator, at least one of the two Florida Burn teams here this weekend – Orange and Navy – will be playing in Sunday afternoon’s playoffs. And if that same historical information offers any clues, Rivera will be named to the 2013 PG WWBA Florida Qualifier all-tournament team at the event’s conclusion.

He has, after all, been named all-tournament at seven of the last 12 PG events in which he’s played: the 2012 PG WWBA Florida Qualifier (he was also the tournament’s Most Valuable Player); 2012 PG WWBA Underclass World Championship; 2012 PG WWBA 16u National Championship; 2012 and 2013 PG WWBA East Memorial Day Classic; 2013 Perfect Game High School Showdown and 2013 17u PG BCS Finals.

“What Mike brings to the table is, the bigger the situation the better he is,” said former minor-leaguer Craig Faulkner, Rivera’s coach at Venice Senior HS and also his coach this weekend for the Burn Orange while subbing for Mark Guthrie.

“When you need a big hit, when you need a guy to lift you up, he’s going to get it done. He’s the guy you want at the plate when a big situation happens, and he’s the guy you want behind the plate catching because he’s just going to come up with a big play for you. He’s a leader on the field all the time. He comes to play every game and never takes a game off.

“Those events (that he was named all-tournament) are probably some of the bigger events … and the bigger the event the better he is,” he continued. “He just has the ability to focus and make big things happen.”

Rivera said he doesn’t consciously change his approach to the game depending on the situation. He and his teammates are always going full-throttle.

“That’s every game, to be honest,” he said. “Even during the seeding rounds, we all play as a team and we’ll do anything we need to do to help the team win. I’ve been with the Burn since they started and I’m definitely not thinking about changing, that’s for sure.”

Why would he? Under the direction of former big-league pitcher Mark Guthrie, Florida Burn teams won three Perfect Game tournament championships in 2012 and started the 2013 season off with a title at the PG WWBA East Memorial Day Classic here in Fort Myers. The group that is the Burn Orange is responsible for those titles and they’re here this weekend pretty much intact.

“I haven’t coached these guys in a little while – Mark (Guthrie) has been coaching this team – so I’m looking forward to it,” Faulkner said of his weekend duties. “They play the game at a high level – they get their bunts down, they move guys over, they steal bases – they do a lot of good things and that’s why they’ve been so successful.”

The team features six seniors that play for Faulkner at Venice Senior High, including Rivera, a Florida commit ranked 177th nationally in the 2014 class; shortstop Dalton Guthrie, another Florida commit ranked 91st, and outfielder/first baseman/right-hander Brandon Elmy, a Furman recruit ranked 306th.

A total of 11 prospects on the Burn Orange roster have committed to NCAA Division I schools, including shortstop Deacon Liput, another Florida commit who is a junior at Oviedo (Fla.) High School and is ranked 185th in the 2015 class.

It’s no coincidence that Rivera and Dalton Guthrie ended up at the same college, by the way. The lifelong teammates have had it planned that way for quite some time.

“Actually, me and Dalton have been talking about it since eighth grade,” Rivera said. “We always said we were going to go to the same school, and since he committed before me I had to follow. We stuck with that promise and I’m glad we have Deacon to come join us because he’s a winner, too.”

All three jumped at playing for Gators head coach Kevin O’Sullivan as soon as the offers came their way.

“The way they run their program, it’s not easy – they’re not soft and they want guys that win, that’s for sure,” Rivera said. “When you’ve got a bunch of guys that want to win you can do anything you want.”

“Florida is lucky to have those guys – if they get them,” Faulkner said while referencing the MLB amateur draft in June that might affect a few of those players. “They’ll come to Florida with the ability to win, to know how to win and to know how to handle big situations. The little nuances in the game, they do them right, and they’re professional about what they do. They’re committed kids and they do things right.”

Rivera performed on several prominent stages this summer – including the PG National Showcase in Minneapolis – and reached the pinnacle while helping the USA Baseball 18u National Team to the championship at the 2013 IBAF AAA/18u World Cup in Taichung, Taiwan. The USA team beat Japan, 3-2, in the championship game to claim its second straight 18u World Cup title.

Rivera was one of only two USA players to be named to the All-Star Team at the conclusion of the World Cup after hitting .364 (16-for-44) with three doubles, a home run, 22 total bases, seven runs scored and a team-high 11 RBI.

He’s learned about winning, commitment and doing things the right way by playing the last three years with basically the same teammates under two committed coaches: Mark Guthrie with the Burn and Faulkner at Venice Senior High.

“The chemistry is great,” Rivera said of his teammates. “We all know each other so well and we know what we can do with each other.”

Venice Senior High has won two straight Florida high school state championships and won the inaugural Perfect Game High School Showdown in early April. It finished second in PG’s National High School Rankings this spring.

“We’ll see how their senior year goes and we’re excited to see what’s going to happen this year,” Faulkner said. “They’ll leave behind a legacy of playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played. Whether they win it all a third time or whatever, they do it right. They do well in school, they’re good students, they’re gentlemen and they’re a pleasure to be around.”

As Rivera’s stock has risen, he has been getting some mention as someone who may need to be paying attention during June’s 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft. For his part, Rivera prefers to focus on the final year of his high school career.

“(The draft is) in the back of my mine, but to be honest I just go game by game and think of winning,” Rivera said. “I can’t wait until (the high school season) starts but I don’t want it to finish, either. It’s been the best four years of my life, to be honest.”

Faulkner is a firm believer that his players’ experiences with Perfect Game have helped make them the winners and competitors that they’ve become. He called their PG summer and fall participation a “blessing”.

“To be able to play at such a high level and against the competition that Perfect Game brings in here is what makes them good players,” He said. “Playing in Perfect Game is the highest point of what they do as far as their travel ball stuff goes, because this is where they can get seen and they can step up and do good things in front of the right people.”

This weekend, the focus is winning a second straight PG WWBA Florida Qualifier championship and then start making travel plans to Jupiter in a little more than two weeks. Take it from a guy who will be vying for his eighth selection to a PG all-tournament team: anything is possible.

“Every tournament we go to we try to win,” Rivera said. “We want to go game by game and win; that’s our goal. I definitely enjoyed Jupiter (last year) because every team there was good and that’s what you want to do, play good teams.”

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