FORT MYERS, Fla. – The young ballplayers that make up the baseball gang known as the Chain Stealth knew exactly what they wanted to accomplish as the 14u Perfect Game BCS Finals began to wind down to a hectic conclusion in a whirlwind of first-, second- and third-round playoff action on Tuesday.
They want to accomplish so much, really, while also realizing it is a process, one with the potential to be both grueling and gratifying in equal measures. This is basically the same Chain Stealth team that finished as co-champion with the Houston Banditos Black at last year’s 13u PG BCS Finals because the championship game was cancelled by rain; they want no part of a co-championship this year.
“We played good baseball during that tournament; we played as a team,” 2018 outfielder/shortstop Caleb Flores said Tuesday morning. “We had a good experience last year so we already knew what it felt like coming in here; we knew we had to keep playing good baseball.”
The Stealth took an official 4-0 record (5-0 counting an exhibition game played after the tournament was officially shut down by rain Monday afternoon) into what was considered a second-round playoff game against the Mid-Atlantic Red Sox (3-3) early Tuesday afternoon at the Player Development 5-Plex.
Because rain wiped out the second round of three pool-play games, teams were seeded based on the results of the first three pool-play games, and these teams wound up with first-round byes. All of the playoff games played Tuesday were shortened to five innings with 1 ½ hour time limits.
“It’s our mindset that when we start the game it’s not the first inning; we’re starting in the third inning,” Chain Stealth head coach Derrick Simon said Tuesday. “We’re going into the third inning and it’s zero-zero and we haven’t scored yet and we’ve got to go out and score in the third inning. It’s our mindset that you have to play every inning like it’s the last inning.”
He said the five inning game might change the way he manages his pitchers and arranges his lineup, but with everything considered as a whole, Simon was looking forward to the challenge.
“No tournament is perfect,” he said, “and I understand what Perfect Game had to do in order just to get us on the field. And I want to say ‘Thanks’ to Perfect Game for letting us settle this on the field. They had to change the format a little bit but I’m pleased with it.”
The Chain Stealth didn’t exactly follow Simon’s game-plan to a “T” against the Mid-Atlantic Red Sox in the playoff opener for both teams. It was a scoreless tie heading into the bottom of the fifth before the Stealth pushed across the winning run on a wild pitch for a 1-0 victory. The game-winner was made possible after a one-out single by Tyler Simon was followed by a one-out double from Austin Thompson, which moved Tyler Simon on third.
The biggest but perhaps the most quiet performance of the game was turned in by 2017 right-hander Chase Patrick from Ellaville, Ga. The 5-foot-10, 155-pound Patrick twirled a five inning no-hitter, striking out five and walking three, mostly with fastballs that sat at 78-80 miles per hour and topped out at 81.
It wasn’t the Stealth’s first great escape. They were involved in a pool-play game with the Diamond Jacks Super 14 earlier in the tournament where they fell behind 3-0 only to rally for a 4-3 win and remain unbeaten. Since that game was in the first set of three pool-play games, it turned out to be a crucial win in terms of seeding in the expanded playoffs.
“That win just displays the kind of heart, passion and determination that these kids play with,” Derrick Simon said.
“This is a very special group of kids,” he continued. “This group started playing together when they were about 8 years old and off that 8u team will still have five or six that are up here with this 14u team. Of course, we’ve gone through some adjustments and changes throughout the years but all-in-all it’s a great group of kids.”
Ten players on this Chain Stealth 14u roster were members of the team that were co-champs at last year’s 13u PG BCS Finals, including seven named to the all-tournament team. Those seven included Patrick (2017), Thompson (2017), Simon (2017) and Flores (2018); catcher Leyton Pinckney (2018) and right-hander Hunter Goodwin (2018).
Additionally, 2018 right-hander William Spalinger from Albany, Ga., was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Pitcher.
“It was tough and we had to play hard, just play as a team,” Spalinger said Tuesday. “We kind of feel like we have some unfinished business because last time the championship (game) got rained out and we didn’t get to play it.
“We’ve played really good defense and we’ve been hitting the ball very well this week,” he continued. “We always have really very defense; sometimes we’ll have on-and-off bats but they always come back.”
The condensed playoff schedule with games coming at these youngsters in rapid-fire processions – when the last two teams meet in the championship game Wednesday afternoon at JetBlue Park it will be their fourth game of the day – it’s a challenge to keep the young players focused.
Thompson, a 5-foot-10, 155-pound, hard-nosed shortstop from Rincon, Ga., feels like he knows why his team will ultimately succeed.
“I think it’s our team bonding; we’re all brothers. We’ve got each other backs and if one fails we’ll pick him up; that’s what makes us good,” he said, adding the team thrives on the type of adversity it has met here with rain delays and a rapid-fire playoff schedule.
“That’s where we’re going to come in clutch. We have a bunch of pitchers who throw strikes and in five inning games you just have to get runs on the board and if you don’t commit any errors, you’re going to be fine.”
His coach couldn’t have agreed any more readily:
“With this group, they’re all a little bit different,” Derrick Simon said. “But the bottom line is they’re all very competitive, they’re passionate about the game and they’re not going to lose, they’re never going give up and they’re never going to give in.”
Simon started bringing this Chain Stealth team in PG tournaments last year and this is now the fifth event they’ve participated in. In addition to the co-championship at the 2013 PG BCS finals, most of the guys here this week were also on the Chain Stealth that won the championship at last year’s inaugural PG WWBA Freshman National Championship.
“This is an environment that these players thrive on – the better the competition the better they play,” Simon said. “I’ve never put a challenge in front of them that they did not accept and didn’t conquer that challenge. The bigger and tougher the team, the better they play.”
Coach Simon has two sons on the team, Tyler Simon and Malik Spratling. “I love coaching them,” Simon said. “They don’t like it all the time but I enjoy it.” The reality of the situation is he enjoys coaching each and every one of these teenagers.
“I love watching these kids grown up; the progress they’ve made from 13 to 14 is light years,” Simon said. “Last year at 13u we were a great team and I think this year we’re even better. I think we’re a little bit tougher, a little bit stronger and we know we belong here and we believe in each other.”
Even though they got that first playoff win under their belts in heart-stopping fashion early Tuesday afternoon, the Stealth had no time to take a deep breath and relax. Their third-round game was scheduled for early evening and they would have rise to the occasion once again.
“We’ve been hitting the ball pretty good and playing good defense; out pitching is pretty good, too,” Flores said before adding that team chemistry just might be on their side, as well. “We get along very well and we hang out every day at the hotel and we pick each other up when we’re down.”
And out there somewhere, maybe even over there on the other side of the bracket, lurked the Banditos Black, the same team the Chain Stealth shared the 2013 13u PG BCS Finals national championship with a year ago.
“It would be awesome to the Banditos and us in the championship game, and I’m hoping for that,” Thompson said. “It could happen; we just have to play good defense and hit and let our pitchers throw strikes and I believe we’ll get there.”