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Sunday, June 10, 2018

Lefty Phipps rises to occasion

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Jackson Phipps (Perfect Game)

EMERSON, Ga. – The Georgia high school class of 2018 was front-loaded with elite arms, led by Perfect Game All-American right-handers Ethan Hankins, Kumar Rocker and Cole Wilcox, and the left-hander Luke Bartnicki; lefty Justin Wrobleski, a PG National Showcase alumnus like the others, was also highly ranked and highly regarded.

The Georgia class of 2019 has outstanding right-hander Daniel Espino as its front man – he’s ranked No. 2 nationally – with several other strong arms looking to climb the rankings. But as of this writing, it’s pretty lonely at the top for pitchers in the Georgia class of 2020.

Jackson Phipps is a 6-foot-5, 205-pound left-hander and incoming junior at East Paulding High School in Dallas, Ga., who is ranked the No. 1 overall 2020 prospect in Georgia and No. 10 nationally. In the last year-and-a-half he’s climbed the rankings like a bighorn sheep goes up the side of a mountain, and he’s left an impression.

Jackson Phipps is obviously another very talented left-hander from Georgia who can run his fastball up to 92-93 miles-per-hour … who can work the ball to both sides of the plate; he’s similar to last year’s PG All-American Luke Bartnicki,” Perfect Game National Scouting Coordinator Vincent Cervino said Sunday.

“He could really be another in a long line of Georgia pitchers that project to be (an MLB Draft) first-rounder; all the tools are there. … He’s really just a special pitcher to watch.”

Cervino was speaking from Perfect Game Park-LakePoint, the site of this week’s PG Junior National Showcase. That is also where Phipps was late Saturday afternoon, and he spoke with PG before he went out and put in his two impressive innings of work in front of more than 100 scouts at the prominent underclass event.

“This is a great opportunity to play with the best; the competition is just great,” the 16 ½-year-old Phipps said. “It’s always a big learning experience, especially when you’re playing against the best of the best, and it’s good to get everyone together and have a good time; that’s the most important thing.”

Dallas, Ga. – Phipps’ hometown – is the county seat of Paulding County, and sits about 30 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta. It’s a part of the state that seems to annually produce many of the top high school baseball players in the country and is also an area that is home to some of the top travel ball organizations in the land.

Phipps started playing baseball when he was 4 years old, and it has always been his favorite sport. He played football right up until he got into high school and his baseball career began building steam. He had also suffered a knee injury while playing football and wisely decided to devote all his energy to baseball.

He became involved with the Marietta-based 643 DP Baseball Academy a little over three years ago when he was 13, and it was a game-changer for him. At that point in his young baseball career he hadn’t had any experience playing in Perfect Game events or been involved in any high-level baseball experiences, but when he joined 643 DP, the program welcomed him and introduced him to national-level competition.

“They showed me the way and guided me through it, and it’s just been really big for me,” he said. “They’ve been supportive through the whole process and I definitely would not be where I am today without them.”

This small section of the north Atlanta suburbs is also home to PG Park-LakePoint, and thousands of young players growing up in the area have benefitted greatly by the complex’s proximity to their homes. Phipps’ home is only about a 15-minute drive of LP and he spends as much time on the turf fields playing for 643 DP teams as he possibly can. “It’s just been a blessing,” he said.

Perfect Game announced early in 2016 that it would begin staging a 14u event held over the Labor Day Weekend in fort Myers, Fla., that would be called the PG Select Baseball Festival. The top 40 14u players (according to school class or date of birth) would be invited to the inaugural event and Phipps was already so highly regarded that he received one of the invitations.

“I remember I got down there and I was in the players’ lounge right when I first got there,” he said. “The only thing I can remember is that I’m big – I’m 6-5 and I’m used to being the biggest guy in the room – and I looked around and everybody was my height and big, corn-fed dudes, really. And the first-class treatment that (PG) gave us was amazing.”

The PG Select Baseball Festival is technically a 14u all-star game but can also be considered a showcase event without the workouts. That’s the closest Phipps had come to performing at showcase until he arrived here Saturday, with the other 35 PG events he has attended being WWBA tournaments.

He has been named to 15 all-tournament teams along the way, a number indicative of a prospect who loves to compete at an elite level on the biggest of PG stages.

“I feel like if the stakes are high I can rise above it,” he said. “I’ve always done good under pressure, and once your adrenaline gets going and all those eyes are on you, there’s really nothing that can stop you.”

East Paulding finished 13-18 playing in Georgia Class 5A District 7, and Phipps got a lot of playing time as a sophomore for an 18-man roster that included only four seniors; every position player in the starting lineup was either a sophomore or a freshman, according to Phipps.

“It’s given me a lot of opportunities to play,” he said. “I had a younger defense behind me but that’ll be good for the years to come. We just went out there and gave it our best, and we ended up making the playoffs; it was a long-shot, but we did it.”

Phipps lives with his mom, MaryAnn Tidmore, and his stepfather, Kerry Tidmore. Kerry is a pilot for FedEx who flies to destinations around the globe while MaryAnn is a stay-at-home mom; she is the parent who has shuttled Phipps to all these PG events over the last couple of years.

Both MaryAnn and Kerry arrived at LakePoint on time to watch Phipps pitch Saturday but PG was unable to connect with either of them. It's obvious, however, that Jackson has a family-based support group second to none.

Over the past few years the coach that has had the biggest impact on Phipps is Ryan Sterling, his coach at 643 DP. But recently he has also been working with New York Mets’ right-hander Zack Wheeler, who was a 2008 PG All-American and a first-round pick of the San Francisco Giants right out of Phipps’ East Paulding High School in 2009.

“In the spring, he kind of works with me and gives me pointers and I text him if I have any questions,” Phipps said. “I look up to him a lot.”

Phipps, a South Carolina commit, believes that he has made big jumps with his performances on the mound because he has made big jumps with his maturity on the mound. That maturity has led to better command of his pitches, especially those of the off-speed variety. Location, location, location …

“It’s just repetition, really, repetition until you get the feel that you’ve always wanted, the same thing that you’ve got with your fastball; my fastball is my best pitch because I can locate it,” he said. “But once I’ve got the feel for my changeup and my slider and sometimes even my curveball like I do with my fastball, it’s just bang-bang. You can throw those whenever you want to; you can just pitch. … A big part of that is slowing your heart rate down and settling into a groove and not getting out of it.”

Phipps seemed to genuinely enjoy his showcase experience on Saturday, and his two-inning outing went well, prompting a PG scout to report:

“(Phipps) worked his fastball in the 88-92 mph range with significant life. The left-hander has a lean and projectable frame with a crossfire delivery adding deception. He gets good extension out in front with a feel to spin the fastball and his frisbee slider.”

But there’s more to a PG showcase than what goes on out on the field. These prospects are, after all, teenagers, and they love to interact with one another,

“We all talk, we all have a good time, and if it’s not only about baseball – we can talk about anything,” Phipps said. “We know each other, we’ve been playing with each other since we were kids, and it’s just a good learning experience, definitely.”

The conversation usually trends towards baseball, Phipps explained, but added that right now there is a lot of discussion about “Fortnite” a survival video game that has captured the country’s attention. An older note-taker simply smiled and nodded his head, pretending he knew what Phipps was referring to.

Those Georgia 2018s mentioned at the outset had varying experiences during last week’s MLB June Amateur Draft. The Indians made Hankins (a Vanderbilt signee) a first-round compensation pick (No. 35 overall) while the Diamondbacks selected Bartnicki in the 29th round. The Mariners went with Wrobleski (Clemson) in the 36th round and the Rockies picked up Rocker (Vanderbilt) in the 38th round. Phipps got to know most of those guys fairly well the last couple of years.

Ethan Hankins, especially, and Kumar, I’ve talked to both of them a lot,” he said. “I’ve asked them, and I’ve talked to both of them a lot about this, and they say the biggest thing is consistency – throwing strikes and getting people out. It doesn’t really matter if you want to touch 97 or 98 (mph). If you can’t get people out there’s really no reason for it.”

Cervino, who also lives in the Atlanta area, has seen them all and he’s seen Phipps pitch perhaps dozens of times on the fields of PG Park-LP. He’s liked what he’s seen.

“It’s a hotbed for talent here and (Phipps) is somebody that we’ve seen make strides over the past couple of years,” Cervino said. “You see that development as he continues to go and go, and I think his high school ball and the work he does over the summer with the 643 team really helps that.”

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