Tournaments : : Story
Friday, May 23, 2014

An Angel in the outfield

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Tempe, Ariz.-based Angels Scout Team Black head coach Lou Ciurca Jr. glanced at his 19-man roster before his team was set to play its opener at the 4th annual 18u PG WWBA West Memorial Day Classic late Friday morning, and simultaneously smiled and sighed.

“I’m really hoping to have at least 11 of them here today,” Ciurca Jr. told PG while standing just outside of a mostly empty dugout at the Chicago White Sox quad at the Camelback Ranch spring training facility. “We have a lot of guys who just went through graduation (Thursday) night and quite a few guys who just got done playing in the Arizona state high school playoffs. I am expecting them to be here, though.”

And just like that, the players began to file in. Included among them was dynamic 2014 outfielder Gerard Hernandez from Phoenix, who on Thursday received his diploma from Pinnacle High School in far north Phoenix. He is also coming off a very solid senior season at Pinnacle and is hoping to help the Angels Scout Team Black contend for a title here this weekend.

“It’s good to come out here and get a couple of swings in and just do my thing,” Hernandez said upon his arrival at Camelback Ranch on Friday. “I want to go out and swing hard, play hard and run hard.”

That has been Hernandez’s method of operation throughout his playing career both at Pinnacle High School and with the Angels Scout Team. He has been playing with various Angels Scout Team squads since he was 13 years old and has been a teammate with most the guys on this Black squad for almost two years.

“It’s been good and I’ve been very, very pleased with my development,” he said of his association with the organization. “We get to go out to the Angels’ complex (in Tempe) and they have all ex-MLB players teaching you and telling you what they did and what not to do.

“Every Sunday during the summer we go down there and we train for about an hour or two and then we play against some of the community colleges from around the state.”

Both the Angels Scout Team Black and Hernandez got off to good start at the 18u PG WWBA West Memorial Day Classic on Friday when they withstood a two-run rally in the top of the seventh to escape the Tucson Baseball Club, 4-3. Hernandez, acting as the DH and batting fourth in the AST Black lineup, was 2-for-4 with a double, an RBI and a run scored. Chris Smith had a pair of singles and drove in two runs.

“I know a lot of teams come in here with hired guns trying to win these tournaments, but that’s not our organization’s goal,” Ciurca Jr. said. “Yeah, we’d like to win and be in the championship game to represent the organization but we’re foremost here for (the players’) development. We expect that good coaching and good development will put us in a good situation in a tournament but I try not to put those expectations on the kids.

“This is the first tournament (of the summer) and they’re all usually nervous getting back together,” he continued. “They want to show each other that they can still play, so for me it’s all about getting these opportunities to educate them.”

Hernandez is a 5-foot-11, 195-pound outfielder ranked No. 172 nationally in the high school class of 2014 (No. 4 in Arizona) who really did enjoy a satisfying senior season at Pinnacle. The Pioneers finished 23-10 after a loss to Chaparral High School in the first round of the Arizona Division I-AIA playoffs, but can include a championship in the All-Star Division of the PG Coach Bob National Invitational played in March among their most noteworthy accomplishments in 2014.

Hernandez, a left-handed thrower and hitter, played in 31 games for the Pioneers and hit .372 (32-for-86) with nine home runs, 19 RBI, 33 runs scored and a 1.282 on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) percentage; he also stole 10 bases in 10 attempts.

One of his home runs was an opposite field shot he hit in Pinnacle’s 9-0 win over Monarch High School from Louisville, Colo., in the Coach Bob All-Star Division championship game played at Pinnacle High School.

“The rest of the spring actually went very, very good; we came together more as a team,” Hernandez said of his high school team’s progression after the Coach Bob title. “We came up short in the playoffs but that’s just the way it goes.

“I definitely had a better year this year than I had any other year (in high school), just with my swing, my defense, my running – I just totally got better as a person and as a player,” he added. “It definitely gave me a lot of confidence.”

There are seven teams flying the Angels Scout Team banner in the 18u and 16u PG WWBA West Memorial Day Classics, including the Black, Navy and Red in the 18u event, and the White, Gray, Orange and Blue in the 16u.

The Angels Scout Team organization has a history that dates back more than 30 years when veteran baseball scout John Gracio founded the Chicago Cubs High School Scout Team in 1983. Now an area scout with the Los Angeles Angels, Gracio formed the Los Angeles Angels Pro Scout Team in 2004 and based it in Tempe, where the Angels have their spring training camp and facilities.

Ciurca Jr., an associate scout for the Los Angeles Angels who is in his fifth year with the Angles Scout Team organization, said this particular Angels Scout Team Black 18u squad includes the same core group of prospects that have played together for the last three years.

“This is our first event for the summer so we just use this particular tournament to see where the kids are at,” Ciurca Jr. said. “We kind of give the new kids a chance to get know the other guys that have been in the program for a few years. This tournament is just for us to kind of regroup, get back together and create our development plan for the summer.”

The roster that he will have at his disposal this weekend consists entirely of recently graduated seniors, many of whom, like Hernandez, just participated in graduation ceremonies this week or are about to this weekend.

“Obviously, they’re all very talented,” Ciurca Jr. said. “The thing about this is they all go to different schools and a lot them played against each other through club ball. But it’s kind of developed into a brotherhood; these guys look forward to getting back together every summer. They stay at each other’s houses and their parents probably don’t see them for a couple of weeks at a time because they’re just rotating around with other guys on the team.

“A lot of these guys could have shut it down as graduating seniors but they wanted to come back and be with each other again one last time before they go and play in college.”

Ciurca Jr. pointed out that anytime a coach can bring together a collection of talented prospects like those that comprise the Angels Scout Team Black roster at this event, these elite athletes tend to push one another. Even during an exercise that sometimes can be as mundane as batting practice, these players “talk their talk” and try to motivate one another.

“In the summer we just want to take kids that we see that have talent and get some touches with them and see what we can do to help them progress and put them in a good situation to succeed,” he said. “Our whole thing here with the summer is we just want to help the kids get to college.

“There will always be the lucky few that get to be drafted but most of these kids have to go to college and we want to give them the proper tools to get some money off of their education (expenses).”

And Ciurca Jr. is also quick to remind that the Angels Scout Team’s experiences in Perfect Game tournaments have most definitely been positive ones. He pointed to standout prospects like Hernandez, potential first-round MLB draft prospect and Arizona State signee Alex Verdugo and New Mexico signee James Harrington – who is here this weekend – have benefitted from the exposure.

“Nowadays a lot of colleges don’t have the funds to get out and see every kid so anytime you can have a credible website and source to go to … is definitely a plus for all these kids,” Ciurca Jr. said.

Hernandez was still uncommitted to a college when he was playing in the PG Coach Bob National Invitational in March but has since signed with Yavapai College, an Arizona junior college with its main campus in Prescott, north of Phoenix.

“I just like the environment and I liked the fact that you get to dorm up there in Prescott; it’s not too far from my house (in Phoenix),” Hernandez said. “It’s a very prestigious college to play baseball at.”

There hasn’t been a lot of conversation regarding Hernandez and the draft but that doesn’t something won’t percolate in the next week or two. He is a guy who has been at the Perfect Game National Showcase, the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., three PG WWBA West Memorial Day Classics and five PG/EvoShield Underclass and Upperclass tournaments over the last three years. The scouts know who Gerard Hernandez is and how hard he plays.

“I’m just trying to play it by ear and see what comes my way and hopefully make a decision in June,” he said when questioned about the draft. “This has definitely been a fun ride, but I’m ready for the next chapter.”

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