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Saturday, June 16, 2018

Espino brings heat to The Trop

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Daniel Espino (Perfect Game)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The scouts arrived at Tropicana Field early Friday morning, eagerly anticipating the start of the 10 o’clock game at this weekend’s Perfect Game National Showcase.

They had, of course, already been treated to some top-notch performances – both during the workouts and early games – on Thursday, but this promised to be something special.

So, when the 6-foot-3, 200-pound right-hander Daniel Espino from Statesboro, Ga., by way of Panama City, Panama, and a Louisiana State commit, walked out to the mound at The Trop to make his start, all of the scouts’ eyes were glued simultaneously to him and their radar guns.

The senior-to-be at Bulloch Academy who lives and trains at Georgia Premier Academy in Statesboro didn’t disappoint, delivering fastballs that sat 93-96 and topped-out at 98 to go with an 88-mph changeup, 80 mph slider and a 74-mph curveball.

The PG Scout Blog generated from the outing noted that Espino “came out throwing fire with his fastball” while also mixing in a “hard, sharp curveball” and flashing a changeup that helped him strikeout five batters in two innings.

“This is definitely something I was looking forward to,” Espino, speaking in halting but very serviceable English, said of the PG National experience. “First, you get to play on a major league field. Second, you’ve got all the scouts watching you, and to be around all these (elite) players, it’s amazing. … Yes, the adrenaline kicks in but you just have to go out and have fun; baseball is all about having fun.

“I feel great,” he added. “It shows me that hard work pays off and it just makes me want to work harder.”

After the first six teams had completed play at the National on Thursday and Friday (six more teams would compete Saturday and Sunday) only two other pitchers had come within a couple of miles-per-hour of matching Espino’s 98 mph effort. Right-hander Brennan Malone from Matthews, N.C. (No. 5-ranked, North Carolina commit) and righty Tyler Owens out of Ocala, Fla. (No. 21, Florida State) both threw 96 mph.

Espino is beginning only his second summer season of involvement with Perfect Game. He and his family, with father Danito and mother Xiomara, live in Panama City, Panama; Danito is a medical doctor and Xiomara is an administrative assistant at Grupe AFEC in Panama City. His mother was with him at The Trop on Friday.

Daniel has traveled to Statesboro, Ga., to take classes at Bulloch Academy and live and train at Georgia Premier Academy for the last two years. The academy boasts a new 12,000 square-foot indoor facility and a new 9,000 square-foot dormitory where the players live and eat.

Georgia Premier was founded in 2017 with the goal of training young men not only how to excel at baseball but also in life in a Christian environment. The men at the academy who have taken Espino under their arms are Gene Reynolds, the director of baseball operations and head coach of the academy team, and Gary Cates, the pitching coach. Both played some minor league baseball and both coach at Faith Baptist Christian Academy in Ludowici, Ga.

Cates told PG that when Espino arrived at Georgia Premier two years ago as a 15-year-old he weighed only around 155-pounds and delivered his fastball sat somewhere in the mid-80s. The coaches spoke with the young man and explained to him the academy’s training, weight-lifting and long-toss programs, and he was more than happy to go along with everything Georgia Premier wanted to help him with.

“He didn’t cut any corners and he worked his tail off,” Cates said. “He came-in in August two years ago and by the end of the next spring and was up to 185 pounds and he was sitting 86-89 (mph); he had put on 30 pounds of muscle.”

He continued to progress last summer, and by the time he attended the WWBA 18u Memorial Day at LakePoint, the WWBA PG-East Cobb Invitational and the WWBA 17u National Championship in June and July 2017, his fastball was topping out at 93 mph; he showed a 92-mph fastball at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in October.

“He continued to work and bust his tail and at the start of this spring when he got out there and started facing live hitters, he was 94-96,” Cates said. “I thought, OK, he’s on the path and he’s progressing like we thought one day he would just by seeing that arm action and that quick arm, and his frame and athleticism when he first got here.”

That was just the beginning. He was named the Most Valuable Pitcher at the PG High School Showdown-Academies at PG Park-LakePoint after allowing three hits during six shutout innings, striking out 12 and walking two; his fastball touched 96. It creeped up a notch to 97 during three, one-hit, seven-strikeout innings at the WWBA 18u Memorial Day at LakePoint tournament.

And finally, pitching Friday in the comfort-controlled environment of The Trop, that fastball hit 98 mph for the first time at a PG event, and it just happened to be one of the biggest PG events of the year; Cates and Reynolds were here front-and-center to watch it unfold.

“He’s just a super kid,” Cates said. “He works his tail off and he comes from a good family in Panama; they’re very supportive of everything we’re trying to do for him. As good of a pitcher that he is, he’s a better kid. … He’s a special talent and special kid; you don’t run across kids like him every day.”

Espino plays his summer ball with the Lithonia, Ga.-based GBSA Rays and was named to four PG all-tournament teams in 2017. He is already rostered for the GBSA Rays teams that will play at the PG WWBA 18u National Championship next week and the PG WWBA 17u National Championship June 29-July 6; both tournaments are at PGP-LakePoint in Emerson, Ga.

“It’s an amazing (organization),” he said of GBSA. “It’s like a family and it’s amazing to play with them. … It’s a learning experience, and first of all I learn more English. Just to be surrounded by these great people is amazing.”

Cates knows LSU associate head coach and pitching coach Alan Dunn from their playing days, and he reached out to the Tigers’ staff and suggested they recruit Espino; they decided to follow-up and offered the hard-throwing righty a scholarship.

Espino has already formed a relationship with the entire LSU coaching staff but spoke specifically about Dunn and head coach Paul Mainieri: “The coaching staff is like a part of my family and that’s the most important thing,” he said. “They’re one of the best if not the best.”

The two rosters for August’s Perfect Game All-American Classic at Petco Park in San Diego are annually constructed almost in their entirety with players that PG officials take under consideration for a final time at the PG National Showcase.

Past performances are taken into account, of course, but it’s infrequent to see a player invited to the Classic who wasn’t first invited to the National; this is Espino’s first showcase experience.

“This is all part of the process,” he said. “You’ve just got to stay with the same energy every single day. It doesn’t matter what event it is, you’ve just got to go out and have fun and do what you do best. I’ve been playing baseball since I was 3 (years old). It’s amazing; why not play baseball?”

Added Cates: “Daniel hasn’t cut (any) corners, there’s no days off; he’s bought-in and he knows what he wants to do. He’s focused-in on his future and what he wants.”

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