FORT MYERS, Fla. – A lot of folks – most, in fact – probably looked at Tuesday afternoon’s second-round playoff game at the 15u Perfect Game BCS Finals between the unheralded Jacksonville Warriors 15u Black out of Jacksonville, Fla., and the equally unheralded Pro Source 15u-Abbott from Carrollton, Texas, as a middling affair.
The Warriors 15u Black (1-2-1) and Pro Source 15u Abbott (3-1-0) would have been hard-pressed to earn playoff berths at this Perfect Game national championship event had not every team received one after the second set of three pool-play games were washed away by rain.
They were living, breathing examples of teams that had been granted a second lease on life and there wasn’t any way they were going to allow themselves to go into a permanent foreclosure. With first-, second- and third-round playoff games cut back to five inning affairs along with 1 ½ hour time limits due to postponements and delays caused by two days of persistent rain and lightning, everyone had to adapt on the fly.
“We’ve got one of our big arms throwing today so we’ll see how that pans out for us,” the Jacksonville Warriors 15u Black head coach Eric Hurley said. “We’ll try to stick with fundamental baseball but as far as the tournament goes, (the PG officials) do a pretty good job of keeping everybody up to date and doing it the right way. We’re enjoying ourselves out here and trying to play good baseball.
“It’s a five inning game instead of seven so the way I look at it is you might use one less arm,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “We’re going to play the game hard no matter how many innings we play.”
Pro Source 15u-Abbott head coach Kyle Abbott was in lock-step with his counterpart in the other dugout.
“You still have to play hard from ‘pitch one’ and that’s what I always stress with my teams,” he said of the new playoff format. “You’ve got to be a little more mindful with the clock and things like that but other than that it’s baseball. These guys are all use to it; sometimes tournaments in Texas get rain, as well, so it’s nothing new to us.”
Jacksonville Warriors 15u Black head coach Eric Hurley sent 2017 6-foot-3, 230-pound right-hander Joey Fletcher to the mound and he was good all day. Pro Source 15u Abbott head coach Kyle Abbott marched out 2017 6-foot, 165-pound righty Campbell Schultz to face the Warriors’ batters. The Warriors immediately received an RBI single from Fletcher in the top of the first to take a 1-0 lead, and that lead held until the bottom of the fourth.
Pro Source 15u Abbott – the company that sponsors the team is called Pro Source Athletics so the team uses Athletics as its nickname (and PG will, too) – dealt with weather-related adversity throughout the last couple days, as did everyone of the other 83 teams in the 15u field.
The Athletics’ stress factor was intensified on Saturday when they arrived at their field at noon for a 1 p.m. game, which was initially pushed back to a 2:30 p.m. first pitch; subsequent rain and lightning delays kept the game from being completed until 9:15 p.m.
“The guys kept their heads in it and we actually beat a really good team, 10-1, in that game; I think they’ve done well,” Abbott said. “We had one bad game – we started out a little rough on the mound with a lot of walks in one of our early games – but we’ve come around and the guys are kind of getting use to it.”
The Warriors had an even rockier road to overcome, having finished 1-1-1 in their first set of pool-play games and losing the opener of their second set before pool-play was cancelled and playoff berths were awarded based on the results of the first three games.
“We’ve gotten significantly better from tournament to tournament,” Hurley said. “I’ve got a laid-back group so they kind of go with the flow, and when we tell them it’s time to play they just go out and play. When it’s time to turn it on they do a pretty good job of turning it on.
“Quite a few of them have played together for quite awhile, so the chemistry’s there,” he continued. “They hangout off the field and they’re close when they’re on the field and I’m just happy I’m able to coach them; it’s been a privilege for sure.”
With the Warriors 15u Black clinging to that one-run lead after 3½, the Athletics came up in the bottom of the fourth. 2017 leadoff hitter Jalen Hurt was plunked by a pitch, promptly stole both second and third and scored on an RBI single from 2017 infielder Cale Hundley. The score was knotted at 1 after four innings of play.
While various age-group tournaments of the PG BCS Finals have been staged here in Southwest Florida since the mid-June, the age-group tournaments of the PG WWBA have been held simultaneously in the Atlanta area in North Georgia.
The BCS (Baseball Championship Series) mandates the use of regulation BBCOR bats – the metal composite bats used at both the high school and collegiate levels – while the WWBA (World Wood Bat Association) uses wood bats, those used only at the professional level.
After conversations with these two coaches, it become clear the kids will swing whatever is put in their hands, although the small percentage that end up in the professional ranks will be the only ones to ever swing a wood bat again.
“I think with the wood bat you’ve really got to focus on squaring balls up and your swing has got to be that much better,” Abbott said. “I like them sometimes, especially with this group – this is the second time I’m coming through with 15s and I’m going to take this group all the way up to 18s. My first group, I didn’t have as many guys that could handle wood … but I really don’t think it makes a big difference.”
Hurley, likewise, seemed noncommittal to the entire discussion.
“These guys are upcoming sophomores in high school so they have three more years of using the BBCOR bat anyway, so they might as well swing them,” he said. “The wood bat does change the game a little bit but as far as the BBCOR, I haven’t seen anything in this tournament that really shocked me as a big difference – maybe you don’t play as much small-ball as you do with wood.
“I think the parents like the metal a lot better,” he said through a smile, “because wood gets kind of expensive.”
With the game tied at 1-1 after five innings, the tie-breaker rule that loads the bases with one out was put in effect. Without the benefit of a base hit but with the benefit of two Pro Source 15u Abbott errors, the Jacksonville Warriors 15u Black managed to plate three runs for a 4-1 lead heading into the bottom of the sixth.
Both Kyle Abbott and Eric Hurley are ex-major-leaguers and former first-round draft picks.
Abbott, 46-years-old, was the ninth overall pick in the first-round of the 1989 MLB Amateur Draft by of the California Angels out of UC-San Diego. He played parts or all of four seasons in the big-leagues with the Angels and the Phillies between 1991 and 1996; he also played all or parts of four seasons in the minors.
Hurley, 28, was the 30th overall pick in the first-round of the 2004 draft by the Texas Rangers right out of Wolfson High School in Jacksonville. He spent all or parts of seven seasons in the minors and was rewarded with more than a cup of coffee in 2008 when he made five starts for the Rangers and pitched 24 2/3 big-league innings.
He enjoys working with the youngsters.
“It’s a blast; it’s been a lot of fun,” Hurley said. “I was extremely fortunate to be around some really good coaches and some really good players and I take the bits and pieces that I learned and try to share them with these guys; it’s been special.”
Down 4-1 heading into the bottom of the sixth with the tie-breaker rules still in effect, Pro Source 15u Abbott managed to score one more run on an RBI single from 2017 Mason Holt but that was it. The Warriors’ Fletcher worked 5 2/3 innings and allowed only one run on four hits with four strikeouts and one walk.
“It’s a good group; they like each other and they’re really fun to coach,” Pro Source’s Abbott said, before adding with a smile, “It’s an eclectic group of kids. The thing I like about this team is that they have a lot of team speed, we play really good defense and our pitchers throw strikes and we can keep the score down.”
It wasn’t quite enough on this one particular night when it was win-or-go-home. The Jacksonville Warriors 15u Black advanced to Tuesday night’s third round of the 15u PG BCS playoffs where they faced the same win-or-go-home scenario they were in earlier in the day. Chet Lemons’ Juice sent them home with a 5-0 setback.