Tournaments : : Story
Sunday, January 20, 2013

Cal kids no match for Valley boys

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Teams from the Valley playing in this weekend's touted 16u Perfect Game MLK Championship right in their own backyard at the Camelback Ranch Complex certainly have nothing to prove. Teams from Arizona, in general, and the Valley, in particular, have shown time and again they can hold their own against their visiting neighbors from California.

But that doesn't make it any less special when an AZ team can knock off a highly regarded visitor from CA. And it's even more satisfying to whip three straight opponents based in Whittier (Rawlings Prospects), San Diego (San Diego Show) and Cardiff (North County Padres) to win your pool and advance to Monday morning's semifinal round with a chance to play in Monday afternoon's championship game.

That is exactly what the Chandler Rangers -- based in the Phoenix area's East Valley -- were able to accomplish Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It was a tall order, but the Arizona kids responded to every challenge their more highly regarded California counterparts presented.

"We played a tough game (Saturday) against the (San Diego) Show, and they've beaten us twice in the past; the boys played real well," Chandler Rangers field manager Tony Boyer said Sunday morning. "We've got our original baseball team back now, and they've played well, they've hit well. The pitching has been our key so far and we've got two or three good pitchers left to try to get us through the tournament."

There is no question the Rangers received outstanding starting pitching in their three pool-play wins while outscoring the Prospects, the Show and the Padres by a combined 18-2.

Right-hander Johnny Fajardo (2016, Phoenix) got things started when he threw a seven-inning, four-hit, four-strikeout, no-walk shutout in the Rangers' 5-0 win over the Rawlings Prospects on Friday. Not to be outdone, left-hander Tommy Martinez (2015, Tempe, Ariz.) followed that performance with a seven-inning six-hitter, allowing no earned runs and striking out six in a big 3-1 win over the Show on Saturday. Martinez also smacked a solo home run in that win.

On Sunday, right-hander Zachary Hardy (2015, Mesa, Ariz.) followed Fajardo's and Martinez's leads by throwing five innings of two-hit, shutout ball while striking out six in the Rangers' 10-1, six-inning win over the North County Padres.

"Yeah, I felt pretty good out there today," Hardy said. "My fastball and my two-seamer coming in on the batters were working real good today."

The Rangers struggled at the plate in their first two games, hitting a combined .244 (11-for-45) with four extra base hits. They then cranked-out 10 hits -- including three doubles and two triples -- in the win over North County. Jeremy McCuin (2015, Gilbert, Ariz.) was 3-for-4 with a double and three RBI.

So, what about those wins over three quite talented Cal teams? Rangers manager Boyer wasn't the least bit surprised.

"I wouldn't trade any of these (Valley) kids for anyone," he said, adding that the Rangers organization can compete with anyone from other parts of the country because it tries to instill the same values and work ethic into its players that the more nationally recognized organizations espouse.

"We stress good sportsmanship, hustle, be here on time, be ready to play on time, good grades," Boyer said. "School is very important and they're all 3.5, 3.6 (GPA) and higher. We work hard; we practice two times a week and when we get ready to go tournaments, it's three times a week. We hit a ton (in the cages) and we just stress a good old-fashioned work ethic."

Boyer said the core of this team has been playing together for about five years, or, in other words, since they were 10- and 11-year-olds.  The 16-man roster that appears in the tournament's official program features two high school juniors, 10 sophomores and four freshmen.

"Those freshmen are dominant; they play key positions for us," Boyer said. "They can hang up here with these older kids."

The Chandler Rangers organization has been around for about seven years, according to Boyer, and its membership has consisted of almost all East Valley players throughout its existence. They include kids who all live within about 15 miles of each other, and the 16 players attend 12 different high schools. The roster of the 16u team includes players from Tempe, Chandler, Phoenix, Mesa, Gilbert and Peoria (which is in the West Valley).

"We're just dads coaching, and that's how I started, and I just stayed with it the whole time and kept the same group of kids together," Boyer said. "I surrounded myself with good coaches and good parents and got plenty of support from everybody."

The Chandler Rangers have had only one other Perfect Game tournament experience before this one, and it was also a successful outing. The Rangers won the 2011 14u Perfect Game Desert Fall Invitational played at Salt Rivers Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale (East Valley), topping a six-team field.

Seven players that were on that 14u roster in 2011 are on the Rangers' 16u roster this weekend, including Martinez and Fajardo.

While the Chandler Rangers' participation in Perfect Game tournaments has been limited to date, that may change this summer. Boyer talked about possibly trying to get teams into one of the PG WWBA national championship in Marietta, Ga., or possibly a PG BCS Finals national championship in Fort Myers, Fla., both in July.

"We like to do one big travel tournament a summer," he said.

A four-team playoff awaits the Rangers on Monday, and will determine if they can win their second PG tournament championship in as many tries. This one would be much more noteworthy because the 16u PG MLK Championship field includes 16 of the best 16u teams in the region.

"Those are the games (these guys) look forward to," Boyer said. "They have had the tendency in the past to play down a little bit (when facing) lesser competition, but they really bring it out when big games come around. When a good team is in front of us they really play well."

Hardy won't pitch again on Monday, but he feels like the Rangers have already proven a point.

"This has been a good experience," he said. "Seeing teams like the Show that have been ranked (highly) the last few years, for us to beat them was a big accomplishment." And, he added, he's enjoyed showing the teams from California what the teams from the Valley are capable of.

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