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Tournaments | Story | 10/4/2019

Just one more big Breakthrough

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Tyree Reed (Perfect Game)

FORT MYERS, Fla. – The MLB Breakthrough Series program first grabbed the attention of college recruiters when it sent its inaugural team to the Perfect Game WWBA Underclass World championship here in 2016.

The program, created by Major League Baseball, was a bit of a curiosity in that first year but now it is anything but. And the MLB Breakthrough Series 2021 team that is at this week’s 18th annual PG WWBA Underclass World Championship just might be the most impressive version to date.

It’s really remarkable how the New York-based MLB Breakthrough Series’ directors and scouts managed to assemble such an impressive roster that features top 2021 and 2022 prospects from 14 states.

It includes four from both California and Georgia, and others from such far-flung locales as Illinois and Mississippi, North Carolina and Nevada, Louisiana and New Jersey, and several stops in between.

The past three Breakthrough Series teams each advanced to the playoffs at this event, and the 2017 squad won its way into the semifinals. This year’s team currently stands 2-0-0 after pool-play wins on Thursday and Friday.

“We’re starting to get a little bit of a feel for it now,” MLB Vice President of Baseball Development Del Matthews, who oversees the program, told PG Friday morning, speaking from the Lee County Player Development 5-Plex.

“This collection of kids that we have we’ve had now for a few years; they’re actually kind of growing up in our program. Now they’re at the age where they can really compete at this tournament. …

“We’ve got a pretty cohesive group and we’re starting to create a little continuity with the guys that know each other well – and they’re playing well.”

It was mentioned somewhat off-handedly by a PG scout on Friday that half the players – maybe more – on the official 25-man roster have the potential to end up in the big leagues one day. With only one exception, every rostered prospect is ranked at least as a top-500 in his class and 10 have already made their commitments to D-I schools.

The top guys from the 2021 class include No. 5 outfielder Tyree Reed (Vallejo, Calif., uncommitted); No. 11 catcher/third baseman Ian Moller (Dubuque, Iowa, LSU); No. 24 middle-infielder Noah Smith (Chicago, Louisville) and No. 46 shortstop Rob Gordon (Smyrna, Ga., Vanderbilt).

No. 2 shortstop Termarr Johnson (Atlanta, uncommitted), No. 5 outfielder/right-hander Elijah Green (Windermere, Fla., Miami) and No. 83 outfielder/first baseman/right-hander Jaden Noot (Oak Park, Calif., uncommitted) are among the top 2022s here for the Under World.

“I like it a lot, honestly,” Reed said when asked his feelings about being associated with the Breakthrough Series. “All of the players are really cool – we connect, we relate to each other, so that’s good. And then, of course, all the coaches are former MLB guys and they’ve got a lot of knowledge, so being surrounded with these guys all the time is fun; you get to take away a lot.”

There is a great deal of mentorship involved with the MLB Breakthrough Series, and that’s why the program surrounds the teenagers with such outstanding role models.

Staff members are actively involved in educating the players about the college recruiting process and also teaching them about baseball and all the different nuances of the game. The players are also required to take part in a mandatory study hall back at the hotel when they’re traveling with the team.

It starts with the coaches. Jerry Manuel, the American League Manager of the Year when he was with the White Sox in 2000, leads the way and he is vocal presence in the dugout and on the field. Other coaches include long-time big-league coach and former minor league player Todd Waller, 10-year MLB pitcher Marvin Freeman and five-year big-leaguer Junior Spivey.

“They’re giving the same coaching advice to these players at 14, 15, 16 years old that they’d be giving to the major-leaguers,” Matthews said. “It’s really the same terminology, it’s the same language at a different level, and so the kids that are able to pick up on that are going to be that much better.”

The fall season can be a bit of challenge for the MLB Breakthrough Series staff because most of these guys don’t play together all summer. The Series does have camps and showcases throughout the summer which allows the players to get reacquainted and acclimated with one another, along with some other developmental events.

Because of the talent pool on this roster, a lot of these young prospects play the same positions, so that requires the staff to do a lot of mixing and matching to make sure everyone gets adequate playing time.

Matthews feels like that’s a good thing because it gives the players a chance to play alongside others who are equally as talented and they also get a chance to try their hand at different positions out on the field.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “I think there’s a comfort level with the other guys on the team and so that’s been really positive for the group.”

Several stars came out to shine in the Breakthrough Series’ 9-0, five-inning win over Iowa Select 2022 Norris in Thursday’s opener. Moller homered and singled and drove in three runs, Jordan McCants (No. 201-ranked, Mississippi State) doubled and singled and drove in four and Braden Montgomery (’21 No. 197, uncommitted) contributed a pair of singles and an RBI.

2021 right-hander Aaron Calhoun and ’21 lefty Robert Evans combined on a five-inning no-hitter, striking out seven with just one walk; Calhoun is an Oklahoma commit ranked No. 214 nationally and the uncommitted Evans is a top-500 prospect in his class.

It was more of the same in the Series’ 8-1 victory over the Pennsylvania-based Rising Star Baseball 2021 National on Friday, although this was a scoreless tie after four innings. The Series put up a single run in the top of the fifth, two in the sixth and then sealed it with five in the seventh.

Johnson doubled, singled and drove in two runs from his spot at the top of the order, Montgomery tripled and singled and Andreaus Lewis II (’21 t-500, Eastern Kentucky) poked a pair of singles and drove in a run to lead a 12-hit attack.

2021 left-hander Camron Hill and 2021 righties Colby Guy and Jacob Walsh combined on a two-hitter, striking out 13. Hill, a top-500 Georgia Tech commit, pitched the first two scoreless, hitless innings, striking out three and walking four; Guy (t-500) went the next two, allowing only one hit and striking out two; Walsh (t-500) worked the final three, gave up one run (on a wild pitch) on one hit and struck-out eight without a walk.

“I’m ready to get out here with these boys and finally get on the field with them,” Hill told PG before making the start. “I finally get to pitch and show everybody what I can do and what we can do.”

The players that are selected to fill the final roster spots came from all over the country but the criteria for selection they must meet doesn’t change from region to region. Matthews noted that “good student” and “good character” are at the top of the list, but work ethic, ability and skill-set certainly come into play.

The plan is to get them into their college of choice and college coaches and recruiters are in abundance at the Underclass World.

“When we’re identifying players we’re looking for good student-athletes who we feel have the ability to play at the Division I level or higher,” he said. “From there, we just try to cultivate them and try to start giving them access that they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

One of the things the Breakthrough Series program emphasizes is getting on and off the field. That probably sounds pretty simplistic but it can also set the tone for an entire day.

It can also catch the eye of the college coaches that are scrutinizing a player’s every move: they can get an idea of which players are always hustling and always playing with high energy. Those are little things, but the Breakthrough Series staff firmly believes little things can quickly add-up to big things.

“And then we talk about the development parts of the game, whether it’s positioning, whether it’s a particular play in a certain situation or whether it’s just being aggressive on the bases,” Matthews said. “All of those things, they become staples of our program but as you continue to repeat them then it starts to become instinctual.”

Moller, the kid from Iowa, started playing with the Breakthrough Series during their second year of operations, having heard of the program from friends of his in Chicago who had been involved. He soon fell in love with the program.

“Everybody here is really high energy; we all get along,” Moller said. “Even before the game we’re always listening to music, we’re always loose. When we’re out there nobody really plays tight, it’s just about having fun.”

So, for a team like the MLB Breakthrough Series, just how important are wins and losses as this PG national championship event moves into the weekend? Matthews clearly wants the team to win, but not because he’s all about championship trophies, banners and rings.

He wants the team to win so it can play more games on more days, hopefully reaching Monday’s final-four. It’s a competitive environment and the coaching staff wants to give as many kids as possible the opportunity to enjoy playing in an atmosphere like this one.

Yes, it is a tournament, but it also a showcase where the players are trying to show off their skills while also being a good and winning teammate.

“At the end of the day it’s not the end-all, be-all – we’d love to win, we’d love to be in the semifinals and the championship game – but I think there are life lessons in every game that we play,” Matthews said. “Every opportunity we have to get better, to teach the game and to get better for development, I think that’s what most important.”

Reed is right in line with Matthews’ approach: “Of course winning is important but we know that if we focus on playing our game and playing how we planned to play coming into this, then we’ll be perfectly fine,” he said. “We came in expecting that we’d have the talent to win this so as long as we stay focused and continue to play together we know that we’ll come out and be fine.”

The MLB Breakthrough Series 2021s will complete pool-play Saturday morning and, if things go according to plan, prepare for the 53-team playoffs; first-round games are scheduled for Saturday afternoon with the top 11 seeds receiving byes directly into the round-of-32, where play begins on Sunday.

Hill, the Georgia Tech commit from Fayetteville, Ga., is looking forward to the weekend. And he made a point of saying just how appreciative he is of the fact that the Breakthrough Series evaluators felt he had the ability to help the team win at the highest level, which is where the WWBA Underclass World Championship has a seat at the table.

And he still remembers the message he and the others received from the staff before arriving in Southwest Florida.

“They just told us to take advantage of the coaches that we have here and take advantage of the opportunity to learn something, and have fun; that’s the bottom line,” he said. “This is an easy group to get along with. We all have the same goal to win and to have fun doing it.”

For his part, Reed knows that all of these past, present and future stars in the game they all love will forget about the prospect rankings, check their egos at the door and work for the common good. The Breakthrough Series staff wouldn’t allow it to be any other way, especially after all that has been already been accomplished with the program.

“When you get to this event, everybody’s at a similar level, and it gets to the point to where the numbers don’t really matter,” Reed said. “At the end of the day, the ranking to me is just a number so you’ve always got to come out and show up on the field. …

“We know that we’re not far in skill level from each other, so it’s really just all about playing together,” he concluded. “We know it’s not just one person that’s going to win this, so we’ve got to all play together and be good teammates.”

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