Tournaments : : Story
Sunday, October 13, 2013

Oh, the tales they can tell

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – This is the tale of two teams, and in many ways during a challenging Sunday of playoff action at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship – and with the most sincere apologies to Mr. Charles Dickens – “It was the best of times, it was the worst times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …”

There is our English Literature quote of the day. In fact, opening day of the playoffs for the 52 teams that earned their way into bracket-play at the PG WWBA Underclass World can be riveting – perhaps not to the extent of Dickens’ masterpiece, “A Tale of Two Cities” – and often quite compelling.

Forty teams took part in the Underclass World’s first-round of the playoffs early Sunday morning, often referred to as “play-in” games. The 20 winners advanced to be paired-up either with one of their own or one of the 12 lowest seeded teams that received first-round byes in the second-round late Sunday morning. Those winners played third-round games Sunday afternoon.

When the field for the third-round was set – technically the round-of-16 – it was interesting to note that 10 of the 16 teams still alive had to survive a play-in game. Two of those teams were paired in a third-round matchup at the former Boston Red Sox Player Development 5-Plex and they had a combined 8-1-1 record between them.

The Marucci Elite ‘16s (4-1-0) out of Baton Rouge, La., and Palm Beach PAL 16u (4-0-1) from West Palm Beach, Fla.,  were prepared to fight it out on Field 3 at the Player Development 5-Plex to determine who would advance to Monday’s quarterfinals.

THE MARUCCI ELITE ‘16s WERE JUST 2-1 IN POOL-PLAY but still managed to win their pool championship. The Elite 16s got past fellow Louisiana entrant Southern Select/Easton, 8-5, in their first-round matchup and blasted the Houston Banditos Tx, 9-0, in the second round.

Right-hander Easton McGee from Hopkinsville, Ky., the No. 95-ranked prospect in the class of 2016, pitched a five-inning no-hitter against the Banditos and only missed a perfect game when a Banditos runner reached on an error in the bottom of the fourth. That runner was erased when he was caught stealing and McGee, who struck out six, faced the minimum 15 batters.

Marucci Elite ‘16s head coach Kyle Achord felt good about his team coming off that win and while getting ready to face Palm Beach PAL. He said the group was prepared to play three games back-to-back-to-back when it arrived at the 5-Plex early Sunday morning.

“You address it just to let them know and say, ‘Hey guys, the max we’re going to play is three’ but you know what? We want to play three, we hope to play three,” Achord said. “You can’t save energy and go, ‘OK, in the first game I’ve got to try to save it up’ because if you do then you’ll lose and you won’t get the opportunity to play the second game.

“It’s the old cliché that you’ve got to play one game at a time but it couldn’t be more true today,” he continued. “You have to play that one game and think that the one you’re in is the most important one. And then you win and you say, ‘OK, who do we play next?’ and you just figure it out from there.”

This squad was put together specifically for this tournament – most of them met their teammates for the first time on Thursday – but it is definitely a talented group. In addition to McGee, the roster includes highly ranked 2016s including outfielder Ryan Mejia (No. 51 nationally) from Tampa; middle-infielder Tyler Bowen (No. 78) from Edmond, Okla., and top-100s Cole Stobbe from Omaha, Neb., and Jonathan Pintaro out of Montevallo, Ala. There is at least 11 other top-1,000 or high follow 2016 prospects on the roster.

“I’ve always felt like good players want to play with other good players,” Achord said. “What’s really interesting is that today, the kid we’ve got playing third (Stobbe) is the number-one shortstop in Nebraska and well, today he’s got to play third. The kid who played left last game (Bowen) is one of the top middle-infielders in Oklahoma. Well, guess what, on this team he’s going to play outfield. And you know what? He’s just happy to be in the lineup and run out there and he’s really done well for us.”

While many of these kids were strangers just four days ago, they came together to make a deep run into the playoffs.

“As you begin to play some games together and hang around each other at the hotel and lunches and different stuff, now they’re kind of starting to relax and just play,” Achord said. “That’s what’s been fun to watch.”

PALM BEACH PAL 16U DIDN’T INCUR A LOSS DURING POOL-PLAY but was relegated to a play-in game because of a tie en route to its pool championship. Once in the playoff field it dug in with a 7-1 win over the South Jersey Sand Sharks and followed that up with a stunning 9-3 win over Chet Lemon’s Juice. The Juice had not allowed an earned run – and only one total run – in its three pool-play wins and with a roster stocked with top-100 talent, they were certainly a favorite to play into Monday.

“When you watched the game against the Juice the thing that any baseball guy should see is the kids are playing the game right – on both sides,” PAL head coach Chad Upson said. “Hey, we both were nervous, we kicked the ball around – both teams did – but when you watch PAL baseball and you watch the Juice, there’s a lot great baseball being played and the game is being played correctly.

“That’s what gives us a chance, and in addition we do have some pretty good talent; that’s how it happens.”

Palm Beach PAL’s top-ranked players – all in the class of 2015 – are Matthew Mika from Lake Worth, Fla., a shortstop ranked 296th nationally; Austin Smith from Boynton Beach, Fla., a right-hander ranked 325th and Colin Smith, a third baseman from West Palm Beach, Fla., ranked 430th. None of them has committed to a college as of yet.

When the team members from Palm Beach PAL woke up at their hotel Sunday morning, they were fully aware they would need to play – and win – three games if they wanted to continue to play for a Perfect Game national championship Monday morning. Upson’s Sunday morning message to his team was short and sweet.

“We tell them to eat a good breakfast. We’d like to stay out (at the 5-Plex) for awhile,” Upson said with a smile. “If you can’t wake up and be excited about playing your last games as a group in the fall then, shoot, you’re playing the wrong sport. We just tell them to be prepared to stay there for awhile and they just come out and do their thing.”

Upson only asks that his players take time to appreciate what they have accomplished and what they will have to continue to do to be successful in what remains of their baseball careers.

“From the PAL standpoint we hope the kids know that you’ve got to play the game hard, you’ve got to play the game right, you’ve got to work hard and then it can really be rewarding and it can be fun,” he said. “I hope our kids walk away from a Perfect Game event (knowing) you’ve played against great competition, you’ve played with a lot of eyes on you and you still have to play the game right. That will make a difference and potentially determine your future.”

AS THE MARUCCI ELITE ‘16s AND PALM BEACH PAL 16U GOT READY TO TAKE THE FIELD, Achord admitted his biggest challenge was effectively managing his pitching staff for however long the Elite ‘16s remained in the tournament.

“You’re getting into game five and six of the tournament, we want to look after these kids’ arms for their future and we’ve got a lot of kids on this team that have bright futures,” he said. “We’re excited to be where we’re at and we’re looking forward to playing this next one.”

It couldn’t have started any better from an Elite ‘16s standpoint. College coaches, scouts and even parents, for that matter, had barely settled-in before the Elite ‘16s jumped to a 7-0 lead in the top of the first inning. Brook Southall had the big blast with a three-run double, and Stobbe and Mejia each had two-run singles during the uprising and most of the drama was gone.

Tyler Thompson, a top-100 right-hander from Knoxville, Tenn., gave up one earned run on three hits over five innings to hold PAL at bay, but the guys from Palm Beach County did rally to make it close in an 8-5 Marucci Elite ‘16s win.

The Elite ‘16s (5-1-0) face their older brother Marucci Elite (5-0-1) in one of Monday morning’s quarterfinals at the JetBlue Player Development Complex. The Orlando Scorpions ’16 Purple (6-0-0) and South Charlotte Panthers ’15 (5-0-1) join the two Marucci Elite squads as quarterfinalists that had to survive play-in games on Sunday.

“We always enjoy coming to Perfect Game events because you know you’re going to play some of the best teams in the country,” Achord said. “I’m proud of my kids and they’re all 2016 graduates, and it’s a scrappy little bunch. But the kids have enjoyed themselves, had a great time, and we’ve faced some great competition this weekend.”

Many of these players from either team won’t see their 2013 fall season end this weekend. They will be on rosters at the 2013 PG WWBA World Championship over in Jupiter, Fla., Oct. 24-28. And oh, the tales they will tell.

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