MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. - Finding a true sleeper at any level of baseball is no easy task, as scouts cover the nation, and beyond, to uncover talent in even the most unlikely places. Showcase and tournaments like the ones that Perfect Game produces aid in this as well, as for the most part, if you have the talent and desire to play the game of baseball, someone knows you all too well.
Stony Brook outfielder Travis Jankowski may no longer be considered a sleeper, but his name was far from well-known to even the most veteran scouts that covered the Cape Cod League last summer. Jankowski made sure to quickly change that, hitting .329 while leading the circuit in runs (31), hits (57) and triples (7) on his way to being named the league's MVP.
That summer reinforced the strong numbers he posted during the spring of 2011 as a sophomore, in which he hit .355, a dramatic improvement from his freshman year (.262).
“After my freshman year I went down to Kentucky for the summer,” Jankowski said after Saturday's 7-1 loss to the Minnesota Golden Gophers. “I told myself, “it's summer baseball, now go out there and have fun.” I think I got away from that my freshman year. I went down and played pretty well and actually got invited up to the Cape Cod (League) for the end of the summer and played up there for about 12 games. I kept the same (mindset) to have fun and whatever happens, happens.
“I did well there, and it carried over my sophomore year at Stony Brook at once again in the summer up at the Cape. I kept the same philosophy, go out have fun and play hard and good things will happen.”
Good things continue to happen for Jankowski, whose emergence last year came at a time when new bats were being introduced into college baseball. He not only passed that test, but also the next switching from metal to wood while playing over the course of the summer.
“A metal bat always feels more different than wood,” Jankowski said, “but these (the BBCOR bats) feel a little more dead than the old metal bats, which were a safety hazard for the pitchers and others on the field. It takes a while to get adjusted from metal to wood and from wood back to metal. I haven't noticed much of a difference. If you barrel it up, the ball's going to go.”
A two-time All-State selection that led his Lancaster Catholic High School to a state championship during his senior season in 2009, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound centerfielder was not highly recruited coming out of Lancaster, Pa. His coaching staff, including Head Coach Matt Senk, saw enough talent in the young man to offer him a scholarship.
“(The Stony Brook coaches) saw me at a showcase at Tropicana Field and had me up for a visit,” Jankowski recalled. “I came up and had a good relationship with the coaches and felt like I connected with them well. The campus was beautiful so I decided to come (to Stony Brook).
“We have a pretty good tradition here. The freshmen that come in have to earn their stripes, and go through the process, the struggles, and all that stuff. Once you get through you're part of the team, and at the end of the day we're all here to have fun and play the same game.”
That tradition led to a program-best 42 wins a year ago, although they failed to earn a berth in the NCAA postseason when they were eliminated from the America East Championship.
Now one of the team leaders, Jankowski has also earned the respect of his teammates.
“We always hang out,” Jankowski added. “We have a small team, we have 28 guys, so we're really close and really united. We're never alone, we're always with our teammates.”
Two weeks into the 2012 college baseball season, Jankowski was hitting .355 as he and his Stony Brook teammates traveled to Minneapolis, Minn. to play four games underneath the roof of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. Two of those contests were played Friday in a doubleheader against Kansas, with the other two coming against the host Minnesota Golden Gophers on Saturday and Sunday.
While Stony Brook took game one against the Jayhawks, the bats went silent in game two, losing the second contest in extra innings, 3-1. Jankowski went 1-for-11 in those two games, and didn't hit a single ball past the infield.
It was later discovered that Jankowski was tinkering with his swing, and wasn't getting the results he had hoped for. After Saturday's game he spent the afternoon with his hitting coach, and got back to the swing, and overall approach, that has allowed him to be so successful over the last calendar year.
“We're going to get back to the basics, hitting line drives up the middle, using the middle of the field,” Jankowski said. “Yesterday we started to get away from that and started popping the ball up, but today you could see we were up the middle and oppo a lot, that's where most our hits were. If we just keep getting runners on and not making mistakes on the basepaths we'll figure it out and put some more runs up tomorrow.
“We'll figure it out and get it going.”
Stony Brook did indeed right the ship on the final day of the tournament, beating the host Gophers 5-4. They split their four games 2-2, and while Jankowski struggled, going 3-for-19, observers that have seen him before pointed out that he is a slow starter, but has never been susceptible to prolonged slumps.
In addition to his prowess at the plate, he is one of the most instinctive defensive players in the college game. While he didn't make any highlight reel catches over the weekend, it also looked as though he rarely has to, as he is always moving in the right direction off the crack of the bat, and his long, loping strides and 6.5 speed allow him to cover an incredible amount of ground in the outfield.
“(On the field) it all starts with defense, defense and pitching, that's our philosophy here, so we stress that over and over again,” Jankowski said.
That overall combination of size, speed, defense and hitting ability should allow Jankowski to become the highest player drafted out of Stony Brook (Chris Flinn, third round, 2001), and possibly only the second big leaguer if he could join right-handed pitcher Joe Nathan.
For now, Jankowski's focus remains on the 2012 college baseball season, and during his time under the comfortable roof of the dome, he never forgot where he was, drawing inspiration from those that have taken the same field before him.
“The Metrodome's pretty sick, I like it a lot,” Jankowski said with a smile on his face when asked about the opportunity to play in a big league ballpark. “Playing on the same ground as Torii Hunter is pretty cool.”
Poppe finding his role
Kansas right-handed pitcher Tanner Poppe was in the exact opposite situation as Jankowski was coming out of high school. Ranked No. 87 in Perfect Game's ranking of the top high school players in the class of 2009, Poppe excelled on the baseball diamond, on the football field and on the basketball court as a towering, 6-foot-6, 225-pound athlete.
Because he was so good in so many different sports, he never focused on just one, and that also prevented him participating in any major, national tournaments prior to the fall of 2008. It was then that he was a member of the Kansas City Royals Scout Team as part of the 2008 WWBA World Championship where his fastball peaked at 93 mph.
Once he stepped onto the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence, baseball became his primary focus.
“In Jupiter that was pretty much my first big thing I had ever been to baseball-wise because in high school I played a lot of other sports, basketball, football (etc.),” Poppe said prior to Kansas' game against Minnesota on Saturday night at the Metrodome. “Now in college I've been able to focus on pitching and every year I've gotten better, throwing strikes, figuring out the game, and I think I've made some progress.”
His progress includes being named the No. 19 prospect in the New England Collegiate Baseball League last summer, and while he was throwing 95 last fall, it was the emergence of several of his teammates that caused Head Coach Ritch Price to move Poppe to the bullpen to serve as his team's closer. That move also allows Poppe to take the ball more than just once a week.
“I enjoy (closing) a lot,” Poppe said of the switch. “Starting or closing, it's whatever my team needed me so that's what I decided to do. Our starters stepped up in the fall and did well, so I was able to make the transition. I enjoy it a lot, it's fun to go out there on the mound and give it all you've got.”
The season has had its share of ups and downs for the fire-balling right-hander, including a mid-week game last Wednesday against North Dakota in which the Fighting Sioux scored four runs against Poppe to rally and win the game late. Poppe was intent to re-assert himself this weekend, making sure the same thing didn't happen when he was turned to record the final four outs in Saturday night's game against the Gophers.
“That was an intense game,” Poppe said. “Early on we've been struggling a little bit, trying to get our hitting and pitching going at the same time. It seemed if one was doing good the other was kind of struggling, so we to find that good combo where both are doing well. We've got some young guys and they're starting to come along and doing well, so I think last night was a good win and hopefully gets us going here.”
Two of those freshmen made their presences be known over the weekend and were integral players in the team's 2-1 record in the three games they played.
Outfielder Connor McKay hit a dramatic two-run home run in the second game of Kansas' doubleheader with Stony Brook on Friday that proved to be the game winner. He added a grand slam against the Gophers on Saturday, making a pair of highlight reel grabs during the same game.
Right-handed pitcher Robert Kahana came in to pitch the final five innings for the Jayhawks in their extra-inning affair with Stony Brook. Armed with the best curveball on the staff, he's yet another reason why the Jayhawks are excited about their young team.
Left-handed pitcher Wes Benjamin started that game, and while he didn't throw all 15 innings necessary to pick up the win, he worked the first nine frames, allowing only three hits and one run. In doing so he pitched like a seasoned ace, changing speeds like all prototypical crafty lefties are known to do, working in the upper-80s with his fastball while showing good command of a changeup. His emergence during the fall was one of the biggest reasons Poppe has assumed the role as the team's closer.
“Benjamin pitched a great game last night,” Poppe said of his teammate. “Our coach said that's probably the best game he's seen a freshman pitch in about 10 years, so he did really well. The freshman that came in after him (Kahana) did just as well, so that was good to see.”
Coach Price saved his usual Friday ace, Frank Duncan, for Saturday night to throw against the host Gophers, knowing how important it is to take a game against a good team on their home turf. Duncan picked up where his pitching mates left off on Friday, overcoming a rocky first inning before settling down nicely over the next six innings to give his team a chance to get back in the game.
“It would be nice to get a win against Minnesota since this is their field,” Poppe continued, “and they're a good team too, so we'd like to get another (win) under our belt.
“I'm excited to play in this dome. It's not really what we're used to, there's not a stadiums like this (anymore) so it's fun to get in here in a big league park and play against some of these good teams.”
As for Poppe's professional potential, he has twice been drafted in the 37th round. The first time came out of high school, when his hometown Royals took him knowing it was unlikely that they could pry him away from the Jayhawks. The Rays did so again last year as Poppe was draft eligible as a true sophomore. He thought about the Rays offer long and hard before returning to campus, placing a heavy importance on the college experience.
“Last summer I didn't know what I wanted to do,” Poppe said of his decision to return to school. “My teammates are awesome and I wanted to get some more school under my belt before I decide to go play professional baseball. My teammates had a lot to do with it, as did the coaches, and I enjoy playing for Kansas.”
Armed with a mid-90s fastball and a workhorse frame, scouts are split as to Poppe's eventual destination between the starting rotation and the bullpen, but his stuff and size point to him being drafted much higher than the 37th round this coming June.
Metrodome Tournament Notes
• All three teams looked to be built in a similar fashion, with solid pitching staffs and infield defenses. For the most part, all five games played as part of the weekend's Metrodome Tournament were played very cleanly and crisply.
• Aside from Poppe's low-90s velocity, Kansas RHP Frank Duncan was the only other pitcher to touch 90 mph over the weekend. He worked mainly at 87-89, mixing in a 76-77 curveball and an 80-81 changeup.
• Junior RHP Thomas Taylor took the mound for the Jayhawks in the first game against Stony Brook, showing similar size and stuff to Duncan working at 87-89 in the early innings with a 77-79 slurvy breaking ball.
• Freshman LHP Wes Benjamin as noted above pitched a great game in the second game on Friday against Stony Brook. He peaked at 89, and dropped down to 84 once, working mostly at 87 mph. He also threw a nice, fading upper-70s changeup that he has excellent feel and overall command of. He offers a lean, projectable frame, although doesn't project to add much more velocity.
• Connor McKay is an exciting all-around athlete, with a great, athletic frame, good present-day strength with plenty of room for added growth and sloped shoulders. Again as noted above, he made two very nice plays on the run in right field, one ranging far to his left to snow cone a ball in foul territory, the next ranging far to his right to snare a ball prior to it dropping in the right-centerfield gap. Both home runs that he hit were pulled down the left field line, and he also showed good speed out of the box to first base, particularly encouraging after he tore his ACL a year ago during the Colorado state football championship game. That caused to miss most of the baseball season during senior year in high school, and led to him falling in the MLB draft, but he returned late in the season to be a part of his team's Class 5A state tournament run last May. He was ranked as the No. 105 player in the high school class of 2011, and was particularly impressive during the 2010 Perfect Game National Showcase in which he ran 6.48 in the 60-yard dash and threw 91 from the outfield.
• Kansas senior Chris Manship hit a solo home run two batters after McKay's grand slam halfway up the bleachers in left field.
• Stony Brook 3B William Carmona has the best bat speed, power potential and arm strength on the team, and arguably of the entire tournament. He hit a double in each of the two games on Friday, including a booming shot to straightaway centerfield over the head of McKay off of Benjamin. He added two more hits on Saturday prior to launching two home runs on Sunday against Minnesota, driving in three while also taking the mound for the final inning to secure the team's 5-4 victory.
• Catcher Pat Cantwell of Stony Brook is very athletic behind the dish, and perked up the small handful of scouts that were on hand when he made a perfect throw to second base to gun down Michael Suiter in the first game against Kansas on Friday. He hit a laser to left field in his first at-bat of the tournament that bounced over the outfield wall for a ground-rule double that drove in Jankowski.
• Stony Brook sent senior Tyler Johnson to the mound in game one on Friday and he did what he has done his entire career by throwing strikes, inducing early contact and letting his defense behind him do the work. Johnson worked the first eight innings, striking out seven in their 4-0 shutout of Kansas.
• Brandon McNitt started the second game against Kansas on Friday, and also pitched well. He tops out in the low-to-mid-80s, but keeps the ball down low and induces early, weak contact, once again letting his infield defense record the outs behind him.
• That defense is led by freshman shortstop Cole Peragine, a product of the team's Canadian recruiting efforts. Peragine made all of the plays to both his left and right, and exhibited a strong, accurate arm while making the shortstop position look easy.
• Corner outfielder Tanner Nivins hit several balls very hard, including a triple on Friday off the base of the wall in right-centerfield.
• Minnesota ace T.J. Oakes picked up his fourth win in as many starts, and is off to a hot, 4-0 start to open the 2012 season. Oakes is the son of Golden Gophers pitching coach Todd Oakes, and worked in the upper-80s peaking at 89 with his sinking fastball. He also threw a 78-79 slider, commanding the lower half of the zone well to induce early, weak contact.
•. Sophomore left-handed pitcher Tom Windle took the second game on Saturday for the Gophers. Windle was named the No. 11 prospect in the Northwoods League last summer, and showed the same loose arm and projectable frame that garnered him that lofty ranking. He worked at 87-89 in this game, but really struggled with command early, and didn't seem to trust his fastball even though the Jayhawks hitters didn't show the ability to catch up with it early in the game. He fell behind in the count, and neither his 80-81 slider nor his 76-77 curveball was fooling anyone. The talent is evident, but he obviously didn't have his best game, and was removed in the second inning after giving up the home runs to McKay and Manship. It should be noted that only two of the eight runs he allowed were earned.
• Fellow Gophers lefty D.J. Snelten looked sharp in relief of Oakes in the first game on Saturday. He has a large frame and creates a lot of deception as he curls the ball behind his hand as part of his low three-quarters delivery. He worked in the upper-80s, with reports of him touching 93 earlier this year during the Big Ten/Big East Challenge. At the very worse, Snelten has pro potential as a left-handed specialist.
• Gophers first/third baseman Dan Olinger is another player I followed closely in the Northwoods League last summer, as he was named the league's all-star game MVP. Olinger continues to show an advanced approach with a smooth left-handed swing, although that swing can get long. While normally not an issue for someone in a run producing position, he profiles better at first than he does at third, and is more of a gap-to-gap hitter than a pure slugger. He hit a pair of doubles against Stony Brook in Minnesota's first game of the tournament on Saturday.
Here is video of several of Travis Jankowski's plate appearances from Friday's doubleheader, followed by his batting practice session with teammates William Carmona, Pat Cantwell and Maxx Tissenbaum. Be sure to visit the Perfect Game YouTube channel for more videos from this weekend's tournament, as well as those from other events.