EMERSON, Ga. – Playoff baseball was in full swing at LakePoint Thursday as the final 32 teams in the 17u WWBA National Championship battled for a chance at a semi-final berth Friday morning. Every team remaining has won its pool and played its way into a bracket style, single-elimination tournament. Making it to bracket play is an achievement in itself, but for the remaining teams in the tournament, they want more.
The Elite Squad 17u Prime marched their way to a number one seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs. They were led by some outstanding pitching performances that guided them to allow only six runs in seven games. Their 45 runs scored was nothing to push aside either. Julian Infante was the big bat in the lineup. He batted .444 in pool play with three home runs and an impressive 10 RBI. Having him in the middle of the lineup has proven to work well this week.
“Julian is tremendously talented, but he is also a really good hitter,” head coach Alan Kunkel said. “He keeps his composure. His confidence is always high. He just gives solidarity to our team. To have guys like Danny [Daniel] Reyes, Elih Marrero, Dominic DiCaprio, Julian Infante, and Coco [Robert] Montes in the middle and heart of our order, have a sparkplug like Lucius Fox that can really run, those guys always give us a chance. If those guys get on base they can steal a bag, and we might be able to steal a run somehow, as long as we continue to put the ball in play and have a good approach at the plate.
Infante, a Vanderbilt commit, is just one of many standout players on this very talented squad. He is currently ranked 130th for the 2015 class, and he is labeled as the number one third baseman in the state of Florida. His play led him to be invited to the National Showcase this past June in Fort Myers, FL where he finished among the top in infield velocities at 90 mph (miles per hour). His experience down there helped him navigate through what he and his team need to do to get better.
“The National Showcase made me realize how good our country is in baseball,” Infante said. “Mainly how I need to improve and get better, and we need to improve as a team. There’s talent out there, and we have got to overcome it.”
Another standout at the plate for Elite Squad this week has been Elih Marrero. With an on-base percentage of over .400 and a .333 average, he has done exactly what a leadoff hitter is supposed to do. He has shown he can get on in many different ways too. In pool play, he had seven hits, two walks, and twice been hit by a pitch. Having him on the bases has been extremely helpful for the team, and his five runs scored further add to his ability to make things happen.
Marrero is the leader of the defense as well. His job as the catcher is to help his pitcher any way he can and be the voice everyone hears. Even if he struggles at the plate, Marrero never lets it affect his play in the field.
“Lately I’ve been struggling, but every time I went out on defense I played my heart out for my team,” Marrero said. “My offense may not be here, but my defense will always be there.”
“He’s a tremendous young man,” Kunkel said. “He wants you to trust him, and he is a kid that is a winner. He commands the field. He truly believes in himself and his teammates. He brings a lot of energy to the game, and he’s a kid that you want at the plate when the game means something.
Marrero also spent time down at the National Showcase. He put in the fifth fastest pop time from behind the plate at 1.82, and his 80 mph throw also ranked him fifth among all the catchers at the event. His talent was shown off, and he really thought the atmosphere was something great. One of the things he took away from the event was he saw how important it is not to skip out on chances to get better. In his mind, each day can be a day to work.
The Elite Squad took the field in the second round of the playoffs of the 17u WWBA National Championship Thursday afternoon against the number 33 seeded team, Big League Baseball Academy-DeMarini Hayes. Elite Squad’s opponent had to play Wednesday night in round one, while Elite Squad enjoyed their first round bye as the one seed. Kunkel felt that having the top seed was beneficial for one reason.
“I think the benefit of being the number one seed in this type of tournament scenario is just to be able to see your opponent prior to playing them,” Kunkel said. “We were able to come out here and watch this team play last night and able to get a little bit of a scouting report.
On the mound for Elite Squad was highly-touted Gregory Veliz. Veliz, a Miami commit, is the number four-ranked player in the 2016 class. He is regarded as one of the top players in the country, and he was asked to pitch in a big spot for team.
Veliz did not have his best stuff, but he still went five innings and allowed no runs and just two hits. He commanded the strike zone with his fastball that was 90-92 mph all day, while topping out at 93 mph. He was never in a pressure situation all day, and he gave the team the performance they were looking for.
“Greg is a competitor,” Kunkel said. “He’s a kid that we know that has a lot of velo (velocity). He didn’t have the best command of his breaking ball today, but the great thing about Greg is that he comes out and he competes. He wants to win, and he’s going to throw big pitches and make big pitches when he needs them most.”
Although their starting pitching put in a great performance, the offense could not breakthrough. Heading into the bottom of the seventh inning, the game was still knotted at zero. With the team struggling at the plate all day, they needed somebody to come through. After getting the leadoff batter on, Marrero came up with a chance to help his team. He did just that by singling up the middle to give the team a two on, nobody out situation.
“Lately I’ve been struggling getting under the ball a lot and not having great at bats,” Marrero said. “I really had to focus in this at bat for my team, tied in the bottom of the seventh. I just had to really focus in, make sure I got on top of the ball, and I made it happen.”
After a sacrifice bunt, an intentional walk, and a strikeout, the team was faced with bases loaded and two outs. That’s when Montes lined a base hit to left field scoring the game’s only run and giving Elite Squad a 1-0 walk-off win. It was not pretty, but a win is a win.
“This last game we had to fight through it,” Infante said. “Some games happen like that. We don’t have everything we have. We have to fight through it, be a team, work hard, and do whatever we can do to win.”
As the Elite Squad 17u Prime moved to 8-0, they cannot celebrate this win for very long. They have to turn right back around to play in the round of 16 later Thursday night against the number 16 seeded team, Elite Baseball Training Chicago-2015. If all goes right, they will have to win one more Thursday to advance to Friday’s semi-finals.
Pitching has led them all tournament. Hitting will be the key now. If they can continue to score runs when they need to, it is very possible to see this number one team come out on top in this tournament.