CANTON, Ga. – It didn’t matter that the Evoshield Canes 17u played their Saturday afternoon WWBA 17u National Championship pool play game at a high school located in a rural Georgia town not necessarily close to much of anything, scouts would make the trek to see the lively arm of right-hander Ashe Russell.
Scouts dressed in black slacks and collared shirts made the hike through a construction zone behind the school, over dirt mounds and down a steep pathway just to get a glimpse of the Indiana hurler. He did not disappoint the swarm of scouts who covered every inch of ground stretching from behind home plate down to the third base line, radar guns armed and ready to give those in attendance something to really talk about.
The digital displays of radar guns would read ‘95’ on four occasions throughout the game, while Russell sat between 91-94 mph (miles per hour) during his 96-pitch outing. Several times throughout the impressive outing you could see the scouts looking at one another and asking in curiosity what their guns read, just to make sure their own guns weren’t deceiving them.
Nothing about the 2014 Gatorade Indiana Baseball Player of the Year’s performance was deceiving, though. Russell had hitters fooled for most of the game. Some college coaches in attendance would quiet say that Russell can’t be touched; won’t be touched.
It appeared that way for much of the contest, as he didn’t give up his first base hit until the bottom of the fifth inning with one out. He didn’t give up much more after that, either. The 6-foot-4 righty, who is a spitting image of the slender-built Boston Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz, with the long wavy hair pouring out of the back of the ball cap and facial hair peppering his chin, dazzled scouts for 6.2 innings of work. The tall slender thrower who has looked up to Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander for so long, looked a lot like Verlander with his performance on Saturday, maintaining his velocity the entire outing.
“It was outstanding,” said Evoshield Canes 17u pitching coach Jason Mills. “He had great command of all three pitches and pitched to both sides of the plate.”
Russell surrendered just two base hits and three walks, while collecting six strikeouts in a one-run effort as his team supported him with four runs in the 4-1 win.
“I couldn’t have done it without the solid defense behind me,” said Russell. “I walked a few guys, which was disappointing, but we worked it out and got some hits late in the game to score some runs. The boys had my back the whole time.”
Russell’s pitch arsenal includes a four-seam fastball that he likes to hammer the outside corners with, a two-seam fastball he likes to save for lefties, a changeup thrown at the same arm speed as his fastball, and a slider he said has a lot of bite. Once he gets two strikes on hitters you can just about tuck an out in your back pocket. He said he’s most likely going to come at you with that devastating mid-80’s slider he’s grown so comfortable with.
“He’s a shutdown guy for us,” Mills said. “We’ve got some very good pitching, but he’s an elite pitcher in this country and we’re fortunate to have him. When he gets that slider going, it’s tough to hit off him.”
On the field, he’s all business, but off, he’s the exact opposite.
“What a great teammate,” said Mills. “He is lively, energetic, and fun to be around. He’s one of the best teammates there could be. The whole team’s like that. They’re all one together and have a great time together on the field and off and they’re a lot of fun to be around.”
“I try not to take myself too seriously before the games,” Russell said. “I try to stay relaxed. I make jokes with the team and then once I get on the mound I try to focus up and do my best.”
Already a very decorated amateur baseball player, the Cathedral right-hander is never satisfied. He finished 8-1 with a 0.88 ERA (earned run average), while striking out 74 hitters and walking just eight. The Notre Dame commit’s outstanding season earned him the Gatorade Indiana Baseball Player of the Year, as noted earlier, and an invite to the prestigious Perfect Game National Showcase, which is consistently heavily attended by colleges coaches and professional scouts. In Russell’s eyes, however, there is always room for improvement, something else out there even bigger and better to be achieved, and he won’t quit.
“Over the winter and the offseason I work really hard in the weight room and in the summer I just go out and battle as hard as I can every single outing, hoping I get better,” said Russell. “A good work ethic is very important. You can’t sit around and do nothing and expect something out of it. You gotta work hard and go get what you want.”
His tough work ethic and relentless mentality found him in the center of the diamond at jetBlue Park, spring training home of the Boston Red Sox, last month at the National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla. All that hard work paid off then and there when he came out and dazzled the scouts on hand.
One Perfect Game scout liked what he saw from Russell on Day 5 of the National Showcase and gave him high praise in the daily recap:
Ashe Russell took the mound in the bottom of the fifth inning and proved to be more than worth the wait. Russell's flight to Fort Myers landed after 2:00 a.m. early Monday morning, and he didn't show any signs of jet-lag or fatigue in throwing a 93-95 mph fastball and an absolutely wicked low-80s slider. With a broad shouldered 6-foot-4, 195-pound high-waisted build, Russell's fast arm and deceptive low three-quarters delivery made him nearly unhittable as the opposing batters were consistently behind on his stuff.
“That was a great experience,” Russell said. “I hit 95 mph a couple of times off the mound. That environment was awesome.”
The TrackMan data used at the showcase registered Russell’s peak fastball velocity at 95.3 mph. It was the third highest peak fastball velocity registered at the showcase. Mike Nikorak and Beau Burrows, both his current teammates on this pitching-heavy Evoshield Canes 17u roster tied for highest peak fastball velocities at 95.9 mph.
“You’re competing against the best and that’s the only way you can get better,” Russell said about attending the showcase. “You can’t play people who are worse than you and that’s the best competition in the country. They make you better.”
Russell shined at the Perfect Game National Showcase in June and has a chance at being chosen to represent of the best of the best high school baseball players at the Perfect Game All-American Classic held August 10thh at PETCO Park in San Diego, Calif.
“If I was invited, it would definitely be a blessing,” said Russell. “God blessed me with the ability to pitch a baseball. I thank Him for that. I’d be really excited to know that I was going to San Diego to play in that game with the best of the best. I’ve been wanting to do that ever since I knew about it my freshman year of high school and I told my parents I wanted to do it.”
In the meantime, he’ll play with the talent-loaded Canes team at the WWBA 17u National Championship, with eight other high school class of 2015 ballplayers. They say great pitching wins a lot of ballgames. To say the Canes have great pitching would be an extreme understatement.
"Throwing with all them definitely takes some stress off me," Russell said. "With these guys you can always expect to win when one of them gets on the mound."
Russell (No. 7) is one of three arms ranked in the Top 10; the other two being Mike Nikorak (No. 3) and Beau Burrows (No. 10). The team has another three primary arms ranked in the Top 100 in Cody Morris (No. 55), Logan Allen (No. 80), and Hunter Parsons (No. 94). Three of the team’s position players are ranked in the Top 100 as well. They include middle infielder Logan “LT” Tolbert (No. 76), center fielder Danny Blair (No. 78), and middle infielder Xavier LeGrant (No. 81).
"They make me better," said Russell. "They hustle out balls, they make diving catches, they give one hundred-percent on every play and that's what I like to see. It makes me better. It makes me wanna go harder."
“Our team is very well put together,” said Mills. “Pitching-wise, we’ve got four or five guys here who can start this week and give us quality outings and win a lot of ballgames for us. The nice thing is we can recycle them because we have so many arms and that’ll make us tough if we make the playoffs.”
Russell’s stellar outing gave the Canes a 2-0 record in pool play headed into Sunday’s game in which Burrows will take the bump.
Nikorak threw the team’s first game of the tournament Friday night in front of the biggest crowd of scouts LakePoint has seen so far. His 97 mph fastball at the National Showcase has garnered a lot of national attention.
With the deep pitching staff and top-notch talent up the middle, don’t expect to attend a Canes game without a plethora of scouts in attendance as well.