Tournaments : : Story
Monday, June 30, 2014

One is good; two is better

Tyler Andrews        
Photo: Perfect Game

EMERSON, Ga. – Picture this: a 6-foot-4, 17-year old taking the mound hurling a fastball between 88 and 92 mph (miles per hour). That is seen a lot more nowadays, although it is still very impressive. 

Now, picture another pitcher doing the same thing that sits at 6-foot-5, and the two pitchers play on the same team. Two pitchers, throwing over 90 mph, both 17-years-old, and are teammates and good friends. That’s a sight to see. 

Austin Smith and Triston McKenzie both play for the Easton Rockets, who are in Emerson, Georgia this week playing in the 17u WWBA Elite Round Robin, a tune-up for the 17u WWBA National Championship, which starts on Friday. Hailing from south Florida, these two have built a strong relationship having grown up around the same area. 

“Me and Austin have known each other for awhile, and ever since he got on the team we’ve become close, almost like brothers, just because of where we come from I guess,” McKenzie said. “We’re like brothers.” 

Smith, who threw Sunday against the New England Ruffnecks at LakePoint, showed off his impressive fastball in his three innings of work. His focus for this round robin was simply to get some work in on the mound, pound the zone, and have fast innings. 

Smith is a highly touted prospect that has a ton of room to grow. He uses his tall frame on the mound to overpower hitters. But, according to his head coach, there is more to come as he grows into his body. 

“He’s just a phenomenal, physical talent,” head coach Brian Kaplan said of Smith. “He’s raw, and he’s got incredible potential. It’s kind of scary to watch him start to figure it out. He still has a lot more in him, but we get excited having him on the team. He’s got a lot of energy. He brings a lot to the program, and he’s having a phenomenal summer. So, we’re really happy for him.” 

Austin Smith had impressive pitching performances at both the PG National Showcase and the inaugural 17u WWBA Round Robin.

His performance at the National Showcase earlier this month gave a small glimpse of the potential this kid has. His fastball ranked in the top 15 among all of the pitchers at the event in terms of velocity. Being down at the showcase was more about competition for him than anything else. 

“It was just a good experience to know who I was facing and going against and know who I got to compete against,” Smith said. 

For McKenzie, gaining an invite to the National Showcase was more or less validation to him that he was an elite ballplayer. The recognition he receives from baseball, like being invited to an event of this caliber, was not taking lightly by him. He understands how much this means to any amateur player. 

“Going to the National Showcase was actually a surreal experience for me,” McKenzie said. “It kind of made me feel that I was one of the top players in the country. Just being surrounded by all that talent just felt amazing. And to know that I was actually part of that group was amazing.” 

McKenzie is also a talent, like Smith, who continues to have scouts talking. In his start Monday against the South Charlotte Panthers, he had hitters off-balance for most of his outing by mixing his fastball and breaking pitches well. Many scouts in attendance took notice, and there was no shortage of them. They formed a nice line in front of the radar gun of field 15, eager to see what McKenzie could do. McKenzie’s coach also thinks, like Smith, he has much more room to grow, which should be a positive sign for all scouts. 

“He’s got the mental and the physical side of the game down. He’s mature beyond his years,” Kaplan said. “He handles himself really well on the mound. He understands the game of pitching. And, again like Austin, I think he’s got a lot more ahead of him. He’s 6-feet-5 and a beanpole, and he’s got a lot more velocity in that arm.

“He has the ability to throw the curveball and the changeup well. He competes well. He gets along with everyone, and he’s just an overall good kid, a good student as well. So again, he brings a lot to the program.” 

The similarities between the two are endless. Aside from their stature and velocity, both get along with everyone on the team and have committed to play baseball in college. With Smith having committed to Florida Atlantic and McKenzie to Vanderbilt, there may not be too much that really is different between these two. Kaplan admits that they even have friendly competition that makes them want to perform better each time they go out to the mound to pitch. 

“Triston and Austin are always trying to one up each other and push each other to see whose going to throw harder or whose going to look better in the outing, and that’s nice to have that kind of competition between those two guys,” Kaplan said. 

“Having guys like Triston and Austin obviously brings a lot of notoriety to the program. It helps out some of the other guys get some looks and get seen.” 

Their Easton Rockets team has come up to Georgia a few days early to play a few games to gear up for the real reason why they are here, which is the 17u WWBA National Championship. Kaplan believes that this round robin is a great way to play quality teams and get some work in for their guys before they start their quest for a title. 

“I think it was just a good opportunity to get the guys accustomed to Georgia; get up here get in this heat a little bit,” Kaplan said of playing in the round robin. “We know it was a good opportunity to play. You see the level of competition. We had a great game last night. We played another outstanding team today. So, to get that kind of competition in before pool play starts just give us the advantage.” 

This Easton Rockets team is impressive in the fact that they all live and play with or against each other in high school ball. Coming from the same two counties in south Florida allows this team to have a certain chemistry that can only be built through years of being together. The team is trying to build some momentum headed into the WWBA tournament and get used to playing on the turf.

Judging by the arms of Smith and McKenzie, as well as the rest of the team’s performance since they have been at LakePoint these past few days, it is not a long shot to think that the Rockets could make some noise when it counts next week.

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