Tournaments : : Story
Sunday, October 27, 2013

Don't call these PALs a dark horse

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

JUPITER, Fla. – Local right-hander Will Engel just may very well be the embodiment of the entire Palm Beach PAL squad that early Sunday afternoon won its pool championship at the PG WWBA World Championship and moved into very elite company in the event’s 16-team playoff bracket.

At 5-feet, 8-inches and 145 pounds, Engel would probably be considered undersized in this world of high school pitchers that are usually about 8 inches taller and 60 pounds heavier. The fastball that topped out at 80 mph during a pivotal pool-play outing Sunday would be almost laughable if it had not been so effective.

There is no question that Engel, a Jupiter resident and an unranked, uncommitted senior at Suncoast Community High School, was a decided underdog when Palm Beach PAL head coach Chad Upson trotted him out to the mound with one out in the top of the sixth inning and PAL holding a precarious 3-1 lead over the heavily favored Ohio Warhawks in a contest that would decide the Pool D championship.

Facing a Warhawks lineup filled with highly ranked prospects and NCAA Division I recruits, Engel allowed only one hit over 1 2/3 innings, didn’t allow a run and struck out three, and Palm Beach PAL recorded one of the bigger upsets in a day full of them with its 3-1 win at the PG WWBA World Championship.

“They want to use the ‘dark horse’ label for Palm Beach County PAL, and I can appreciate that because not everyone knows our names, and what have you,” Upson said after the nail-biting victory. “You can’t be a dark horse for 12 years in a row; you’ve got to start to become a favorite. The Warhawks, I’m not certain that if you go man for man that someone’s going to tell you that we’re going to beat them. But put 20 of ours together and let’s see what’s going to happen.”

The 16-team playoff field was finally set by late Sunday afternoon, and has almost always been the case there were surprises up and down the board. This year those “upsets” seemed even more prevalent, however, as only seven of Perfect Game’s 17 projected pool champions (pre-tournament) actually won their pools. Additionally, just three of 17 projected dark horses – including Palm Beach PAL – advanced.

Some of the more unlikely playoff qualifiers included the Midwest Warducks, which beat-out the Cardinals Scout Team/FTB Chandler; the Reds Midwest Scout Team (Tri-State Arsenal); and the Chicago Sports Association (Marucci Elite).

Not all the Cinderella’s kept dancing at the ball and on into the quarterfinals. The round-of-eight, played late Sunday night, featured the Florida Burn (5-0-0) vs. Palm Beach PAL (5-0-0); the Reds Midwest Scout Team (5-0-0) vs. the Chicago Sports Association (4-1-0); the Orlando Scorpions/Mets Scout Team (4-1-0) vs. Team Rawlings (5-0-0); and the EvoShield Canes (4-0-1) vs. Orlando PG Purple (5-1-0).

Orlando PG Purple plays under the Orlando Scorpions umbrella, and with the Purple and Mets Scout Team both being in the quarterfinals, the organization’s dominance during the 2013 PG tournament schedule continues.

The championship game at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship in Fort Myers, Fla., two weeks ago featured the Orlando Scorpions ’15 Prime vs. the Orlando Scorpions ’16 Purple in a contest won by the ’15 Prime.

If there were observers who thought Palm Beach PAL was set up to fail when it was put in the same pool with the Warhawks and even upstart Chandler Baseball, Upson made sure the PALs were set up to succeed in their game against the Warhawks.

He brought out right-handed starter Pavin Smith (2014, Jupiter, Fla.), the country’s 234th-ranked prospect in his class; followed with righty Sean Gabel (2014, Boca Raton, Fla.), a high follow; and finally used right-hander Lance Fry (2014, Jupiter, Fla.), a top-1,000 prospect.

“Today you got a chance to see what was supposed to be our ace, our number-two and our number-three,” Upson said. “We got a total of two innings out of those boys in the summer due to tired arms in from high school and things of that nature. So we were real excited to have those boys on the mound today against such a talented team and they stepped up to the plate.”

Smith, a Virginia recruit, gave up two hits over three shutout innings, striking out three, and Gabel also gave up two hits over two shutout innings, striking out three. But they needed help: enter stage right Engel, the right-hander from Jupiter, and the mighty Warhawks were history.

“We ran out a young man whose heart is a little bigger than his height, and he threw some big pitches and now we get to play a little more,” Upson said.

“We didn’t think we were the underdog. We thought we were going to come out and win,” said Smith, who was also 3-for-4 with a double and an RBI at the plate. “We had all of our pitchers ready to go and we came out tried to be up-tempo and tried to keep our momentum. We’ve been doing really good these last two days.”

Engel wasn’t the only unlikely pitcher Upson turned to at an important time in Sunday final pool-play action. With Palm Beach PAL holding a 4-0, fifth-inning lead over PG White in a game played right before the one against the Warhawks, Upson called on Jason Dodson, a 2014 right-hander from Tallahassee, Fla., who has no use of his left hand or arm as the result of a congenital hand anomaly, and both throws and fields using only his right hand.

Dodson picked up the save by throwing two shutout innings, allowing two hits and striking out two; he threw 21 pitches, 16 for strikes.

“He can throw a fastball, curveball, changeup for strikes,” Upson said. “I got a call from a buddy who said, would you mind, the boy doesn’t have a place to play? I thought it was a heck of a story and I looked at his video. He’s got a good arm action and he joined us for a couple of fall events, and the kids really like him. He appreciates the game and he appreciates the team and so we welcomed him to come with us.

“We were really happy he got to get out on the field today and hold it down, and he kept us rolling into this game and we needed that. He does a good job; he’s impressive.”

Dodson had to return early to his home in Tallahassee and was unavailable to speak with PG.

Palm Beach PAL didn’t take its foot off the gas after knocking off the Ohio Warhawks. It built a 5-1 lead and then held off a late push from the Midwest Warducks and finally prevailed, 5-4, in the first round of the playoffs to run its record to 5-0.

Smith was terrific in PAL’s first five wins, batting 8-for-16 (.500) with a double, triple, five RBI, four runs and a 1.188 OPS. Upson used 15 pitchers who combined to give up only three earned runs in 35 innings (0.60 ERA) on 25 hits with 42 strikeouts and 15 walks.

Early Sunday evening, this was looking like a pretty special group.

“We’re all from Palm Beach County, so we’re all close,” Smith said. “It’s not like other teams where (the players) come in from all over the country and they don’t know each other. We know each other; we’re all from the same high schools and we just have really good chemistry.”

Outfielder Alex Aristy (2014, Loxahatchee, Fla.), the highest ranked prospect on the roster at No. 197 and an alumnus of June’s PG National Showcase, thinks he knows why Palm Beach PAL has been so successful.

“We’ve just all been working together,” he said. “We’ve got good hitting at the right time and our pitchers have been throwing strikes. And our likes to win a lot – he’s pretty much right on us and he pushes us a lot. But we like to win, too, and we’re really into the game a lot as you could tell today. It’s a lot of fun out here; this is my first time in a World Wood Bat event and it’s a lot of fun.”

With the quarterfinals looming later Sunday, the PALs liked where they were sitting.

“We always try to go as deep as we can,” Smith said. “This year’s it’s been a little down because a lot of our pitchers were hurt, but now we’re just all coming back so we’re just trying to get going again. We’re up-tempo and we have confidence; we know we can win.”

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