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Monday, August 13, 2018

Berry battles back at AA Games

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Jake Berry (Perfect Game)

SAN DIEGO – Every prospect that was invited to the University of San Diego’s Fowler Park on Monday for day-one of this year’s two-day Perfect Game Underclass All-American Games showcase event has fought and won his share of battles along this often-precarious road to next-level baseball.

Some of those battles were bigger than others, of course, and the rewards earned by the victories differ in scope and scale. For top Virginia 2020 pitching prospect Jake Berry, the reward for the biggest battle he’s won to date was an opportunity to continue his promising careers in both baseball and basketball.

Berry decided to attend the PG Underclass AA Games for several reasons, with the main one being that he hadn’t pitched in a live game since July 2017 when he was at the PG 16u WWBA National Championship held in the north Atlanta suburbs.

He also has family here – his parents, Alex and Nancy, are both UCLA grads and he was, in fact, born in Southern California – and he was planning on being in the area anyway.

“I really wanted to do this event because it’s a great event and it helps you get more looks from scouts,” Berry told PG on Monday. “I wanted to do this event last year, too, but I just couldn’t.”

Jake Berry is a 6-foot-10, 225-pound two-sport standout from Great Falls, Va., who is beginning his junior year at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Va.; PG ranks him as the No. 94 overall prospect in the class of 2020 and the No. 18 left-handed pitcher.

Alex Berry said his son was initially hoping to be at the PG Junior National Showcase in Georgia last June but just wasn’t ready, and as a result the PG Underclass AA Games was something that became a goal of Jake’s. He wanted first to play in the prominent DeMatha High School Summer Basketball League this summer and then, for his baseball fix, play in the All-American Games.

“We debated a lot about putting him in this situation because this is the first time he’s pitched against these players,” Alex told PG on Monday. “But at this stage in your life, let it rip – whatever you want to do. He’s not going to be his best, but he’s a 6-10 left-hander – an athletic kid – and he’s excited to be here. We’re thrilled that he’s here, we’re blessed, we’re so thankful and this is a big thing for us.”

So what is it that makes this such a big thing? Why hasn’t Jake Berry pitched at a PG event in more than a year? The answers to those questions have to do with setbacks that Jake experienced, obstacles that threatened to bring his two-sport career to an end but ones that he was ultimately able to overcome.

Berry has had surgery on both his knees to repair damage to his NFPL ligament, which holds the kneecap in place (it is the same injury Manny Machado suffered a couple of years ago); his NFPL injuries came while playing basketball. And then, last January – right around the time he was getting cleared to play basketball again – he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

Scary stuff, to be sure, but after enduring 10 weeks of chemotherapy – the final round of treatment was on March 30 – he was declared cancer-free on April 10.

“The worst thing about (the chemo) is that you’re just separated from your regular life,” Jake said. “You feel awful and you feel like you’re not a part of society anymore.”

He played some AAU basketball this summer but didn’t play much baseball as he worked to get back into baseball shape. He was thinking about getting back on the field for a go-around in July but then decided it was a little too soon and he didn’t want to rush back.

“I wasn’t going to be as strong as I would have liked to have been so I thought it would be best for me to just wait a little while and then come out here,” Jake said. “I would probably say I’m about 75 percent right now compared to what I had been (before cancer treatment), … but I’m just really glad to be out here and be back out pitching; I’ve missed it a lot.”

Berry has played travel ball throughout his career with Tommy Mayers and the respected and renowned Richmond Braves organization. He’s been named to three PG all-tournament teams pitching for the Braves, including at the 2017 16u WWBA National Championship – the tournament at which he last pitched – and the 2016 PG WWBA Freshman World Series

“I’ve loved that association with the Braves,” he said. “Tommy Mayers has been a great coach to me and he taught me a lot about baseball. … He’s helped not only my pitching but he’s helped me know the game better.”

Berry’s only other PG showcase experience before Monday – and, technically, the PG Underclass AA Games are not structured like other showcases – came at the 2016 Atlantic Coast Underclass, an event at which he admits he didn’t necessarily perform as well as he could have.

He was more confident going into his outing Monday because he’s more mature and he knew had to go into it with the same mindset as he would going into a tournament game.

“For me, it’s about doing whatever I can to get outs; that’s my number-one goal no matter when I’m pitching,” Berry said. “Obviously, you want to get (the velocity) up on the radar gun but if you can get outs at 85 (mph) and you can’t at 90, why not just throw 85.”

Baseball is Berry’s go-to sport but he also said he would love to play both baseball and basketball at Virginia. Despite that, in his own mind he feels like he’s a better baseball prospect than a basketball prospect, at least at the moment, and that his future might be brighter on the diamond then on the hardwood.

He does play his summer basketball for DC Premier, a group that is considered one of the most elite AAU programs in the country. And Bishop O’Connell HS’s athletic teams are members of the esteemed Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC), which is nationally known for its prowess in basketball.

The Berry family has lived in Virginia for around nine years now, according to Jake. He has committed to the University of Virginia and head coach Brian O’Connor and would like to continue playing both baseball and basketball during his time in Charlottesville.

“I really just loved the school, loved the coaches,” Berry said. “I also really loved it because Coach (Brian) O’Connor said if the UVa basketball team wanted me that they would allow me to play both. That was a big thing because my dream has always been to play two sports in college at a high level. But I would rather play one sport at the highest level than two at an average level.”

According to his dad, Jake has drawn interest from several big-time programs that are interested in Jake as a basketball-only prospect, but baseball is his priority at this juncture.

“It’s flattering and it’s good for him to go out and know that he has that skill set,” Alex said, speaking of the basketball interest he’s received. “He doesn’t know the difference right now, and we’re just trying to bring some joy into anything he wants to do during this time; it’s been a wild ride.”

Being able to perform at an elite level in two sports requires not only a generous dose of physical ability but a lot of discipline on the mental side, as well. Berry, who turned 17 in June, has become expert at managing his time and keeping his daily routine in order.

“I really have to do a good job with that because if I don’t I can’t really play both sports,” he said. “The main reason why I really don’t hit much anymore … is because it would be really hard to be a two-way (baseball) player and then play two sports. … And I really have to make sure I keep my grades up.”

The Berry family made sure it got into San Diego early enough to attend Sunday night’s PG All-American Classic at the Padres Petco Park downtown. It is Jake’s goal to be a part of next year’s Classic festivities and he knows he’ll have to continue to put in the work that could ultimately lead to that coveted invitation.

“I think that was good for him to see the caliber of play and kind of what the next step needs to be,” Alex said. “It was a great event and there was a lot of talent out there.”

Throughout the nearly three months when Jake was in his battle with cancer, the Berry family became close with Colorado Rockies pitcher Chad Bettis, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer in the winter of 2016 and also was the victor in that battle. Bettis eased himself back into the game in 2017 and this season he has started 19 games for the Rockies and is 5-2.

Jake Berry also eased his way back into baseball, waiting until he felt he was truly ready to compete at the level that has made him a top-100 prospect in his class. Welcome back, Jake.

“We’re absolutely proud of what he’s done,” Alex Berry said, “and he inspires us every day.”

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