Tournaments : : Story
Sunday, June 30, 2013

Versatility leads to playing time

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- They wear one of the proudest names in youth level amateur baseball: East Cobb.  They also wear one of the proudest names at the highest level of professional baseball: the Yankees.

But it would certainly be presumptuous to think the East Cobb Yankees 16u put themselves on any kind of pedestal. It takes more than three words for a team -- emphasis on team -- to earn any measure of respect.

"We're about 'team' and we're about winning and I really literally don't even keep a book; it's bunting or whatever it takes to get on base," Yankees head coach Taj Zipperman said Sunday morning from the Boston Red Sox jetBlue Player Development Complex. The East Cobb Yankees are one of 64 teams competing at the 16u PG BCS Finals national championship, which kicked-off Friday and concludes on Wednesday.

The Woodstock, Ga.-based East Cobb Yankees 16u pride themselves on being competitive at Perfect Game tournaments and other events despite carrying a smallish 13-man roster. Everyone is capable of playing just about every position and of the 13 players that fill those spots, 11 of them will likely be called upon to pitch.

The Yankees used 10 pitchers in their first four pool-play games (27 innings) with right-hander Austin Richards (2015, Alpharetta, Ga.) working eight innings; only lefty Johnny Croley (2015, Fitzgerald, Ga.) went as many as four.

The Yankees'  reduced roster and method of operation worked well for them through their first four pool-play games at the 16u PG BCS Finals. They went 3-0 in winning the championship in their first pool, beating the Beyel Brothers Bulldogs (Rockledge, Fla.), 5-3; South Florida Elite Squad-Prime 16u (Miami, Fla.), 9-1; and the Bronx Bombers (Bronx, N.Y.), 5-4.

They started on the crucial second set of pool-play by outlasting Team Baseball Heaven, 5-4, after taking a 5-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh. The second set of pool-play games hold the most importance because it is the outcome of those games that will determine the playoff qualifiers.

"I like the way it's set up because it allows kids that we know we're going to need (to pitch) late in the tournament to get a couple of innings," Yankees assistant coach Stewart Russell said Sunday, speaking of the tournament format. "We do it like most other teams, I think, 2-2-2-2 (innings) the first three games with our pitching staff."

Nine of the 13 players on the roster played in each of the first four games and all 13 played in at least two games. Everyone will get their share of appearances over the next two guaranteed games and even more if the Yankees advance to the 16-team playoffs, which begin Tuesday.

"As far as a lot of the other teams, and especially at East Cobb and from around the area, we're the only one that carries such a roster," Russell said. "But we have so many different guys that can play so many different positions that it becomes about (gaining) playing time and experience."

It's the general belief among the coaching staff that a lot of the young prospects on the Yankees' 16u roster could play for the more elite 16u teams under the East Cobb umbrella -- perhaps even the powerhouse East Cobb Astros 16u -- or maybe even at one of the other top-notch travel ball organizations that populate the Atlanta metropolitan area.

"These kids -- and their parents -- buy into what we're doing; they just don't believe in 20-man rosters at this age," Russell said. "We have maybe only one pitcher-only and everyone else will play a position or get an at-bat in just about every game. A lot of the other teams believe in the pitcher-only (ideal) and loading up on it, but we've gone all the way through the last couple of years not using that formula.

 "We don't believe in pitchers-only just yet -- we want them to get some at-bats, we want them to get some experience in the field and we want them to run the bases."

Four games into this thing, the Yankees -- hitting .316 as a team -- have been led at the plate by Austin Godfrey (2015, Douglasville, Ga.), Tristan Mooney (2015, Woodstock, Ga.) and Luke Leonard (2014, Atlanta). Godfrey went 6-for-9 (.667) with two doubles, a home run and four RBI while accumulating a 1.949 OPS; Mooney was 6-for-11 (.545) with three doubles, a home run, six RBI and 1.706 OPS; and Leonard was 4-for-9 (.444) with a double and three RBI.

Richards was the top pitcher, allowing no earned runs on six hits with three strikeouts in eight innings.

"I've been enjoying myself; it's been a good experience so far and I've been doing pretty good," said Mooney, who blasted a two-run home run in the first inning in the win over Team Baseball Heaven Sunday. "It's been real fun being a part of this team.

"I like playing the better teams; it's more of a challenge," he said. "If we play our game we can hang in there with anyone."

The most impressive player on the roster at this point in time, according to Coach Zipperman, is shortstop/outfielder Chandler Wold (2015, Canton, Ga.). Wold, who will be a junior at Creekview High School in the fall, is just 1-for-7 with a triple and three RBI at this tournament but has walked four times, good for a .455 on-base percentage.

"Chandler, he's been with me for only a couple of years ... but he's the real deal. He's probably the best shortstop I've ever  seen (at his age group) and I've seen a lot of them," Zipperman said. "I've coached at East Cobb for eight years and we've seen it all. He's a good kid with a good family and he deserves to go somewhere and to be noticed."

This is the fifth Perfect Game tournament Wold has played in, all with the East Cobb Yankees 15u or 16u. He is not ranked by Perfect Game and has not committed to a college but Georgia and Georgia Tech have started showing some interest, according to his PG Profile page.

"He's just got 'it'," Zipperman said. "I don't know how to explain it; he's got that 'it' factor. He's one of those kids where you say 'he has it.' He's a good basketball player, he's the running back for his varsity football team and he's the shortstop for his varsity baseball team. He's just one of those kids who has 'it.' ... I just want the best for him because he's a great kid and there's no problems with him at all."

The core group of this East Cobb Yankees 16u team has been playing together for three years, and an effort will be made to keep them together next year as an East Cobb Yankees 17u entry, but most likely under the direction of a different coaching staff, according to Russell.

The Yankees probably needed to win their two remaining pool-play games Sunday and Monday to advance to the playoffs. Only the champions from the second set of pool play earn berths into the 16-team playoff field. Russell is hoping the players' versatility and devotion to 'team' will be enough to carry them  where they want to go.

"They play free and easy with no  pressure, absolute versatility and with a low number of kids; we put anybody anywhere. When we do our defensive substitutions," he said, pointing around the field, "it's 'right field, centerfield, second base, third base.' They're just used to it and they know they've got a job to get done."

This same East Cobb Yankees 16u team will play in the PG WWBA 16u National Championship July 12-19 in Marietta, Ga.

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