FORT MYERS, Fla. - The young guys on the South Texas Diamondbacks, now a 16u team based in the Mexican border town of McAllen, Texas, spent most of the last several years playing against other youngsters from the Corpus Christi area.
The competition was great, of course, and the McAllen boys were able to hold their own, but it was, admittedly, a struggle going against those Corpus Christi guys. These were young players that would one day - as early as this past spring, in fact - end up playing at national prep power Mary Carroll High School in Corpus Christi.
Carroll just finished a spring season in which it ended up being ranked 27th in Perfect Game's final National High School Top 50 Rankings.
Joe Esquivel, the head coach of the South Texas Diamondbacks, came up with a grand plan after the D-backs made their Perfect Game tournament debut at last year's 15u BCS Finals. Why not, he thought, bring those Carroll boys into the D-backs' fold to play with him. Five of them jumped at the chance.
"The Carroll kids, we would always play against them," Esquivel said Tuesday afternoon. "This year we have them on our side."
The South Texas Diamondbacks are back in southwest Florida this week competing in the PG 16u BCS Finals. They are very much in the running for a playoff spot after beating Tennessee Dores Gold, 9-0 in five innings, Tuesday afternoon to improve to 4-0 overall and 1-0 in the decisive second round of three-game pool-play.
"We like where we're sitting, and now we just have to take it game-by-game," Esquivel said after the win over Dores Gold, a game played on one of the immaculately groomed fields at the JetBlue Player Development Complex, the new spring training home of the Boston Red Sox.
The South Texas D-backs were at the 15u BCS Finals last summer with just 10 players but advanced to the playoffs, where they lost in the first round. It was after that experience, where Esquivel felt they were a little undermanned for a guaranteed six games, that he decided to add a little firepower.
"Last year gave us a good idea of what to expect," he said. "There are very good teams out here and we can't take any team lightly because they're all very good."
Every player on the D-backs roster is of Hispanic heritage. Most of the young players - with the exception of the "Carroll 5" - have been playing together since they were about 8 years old. This year's 14-man roster has meshed quickly into a championship contender.
The road to a title is tenuous, however. The 64-team 16u BCS Finals is structured so that each team plays a initial round of three pool-play games, then the deck is shuffled and each team plays another round of three pool-play games.
Only the 16 pool champions from the second round advance to Thursday's first round of the playoffs. The outcomes of the first three pool games are considered only for any tie-breaker scenarios that may pop-up after the second round.
In other words, South Texas' 3-0 start to this tournament wasn't nearly as important as its 1-0 start to the second round of play.
"I wish it was a little bit different because a team that didn't win any games (in the first round of pool play) can still make it to the championship," Esquivel said. "But it can go either way and it gives everybody a chance to make it. I like it."
The Diamondbacks outscored their first four opponents here by a combined 35-6: 12-0 vs. the Florida Hardballers; 5-3 over the Florida Red Sox; 9-3 vs. Team Elite Grey; and the 9-0 win over Tennessee Dores Gold on Tuesday.
Right-handers Andrew James Padron and Isaiah Lybarger combined on the three-hit, five-inning shutout against Dores Gold, with Lybarger allowing just one hit and striking out two while working the fourth and the fifth. Esquivel used nine pitchers in the first four games, with Padron working seven innings and none of the others more than three.
The hitting stars have been outfielder John Pineda, who is 4-for-6 (.667) with a double, four RBI, four runs scored and four walks; third baseman Andres Omar Gonzalez, 6-for-10 (.600) with a double, triple, three RBI and three runs; and utility man E.J. Garcia, 4-for-10 (.400) with a triple, home run, four RBI and five runs.
Lybarger and Pineda will be juniors at Carroll High School in the fall as part of the "Carroll 5."
"We're here to play hard, and we have three or four kids who are being seriously looked at by Division I schools," Esquivel said. "Our main thing is to see if we can help the kids get noticed (by college coaches and recruiters). We want all these kids to try to see if they can go to Division I and play after high school. We want to give them the experience of playing in these kind of tournaments."
The South Texas Diamondbacks' playoff fate will be decided Wednesday when they complete pool-play against Florida Burn Orange (3-1) and Team Elite Black (1-2-1). Both games will be played at the Lee County Sports Complex.
Even though this is just the South Texas D-backs second PG tournament, Esquivel is already a fan. He looked around the practice fields at the JetBlue Player Development Complex - all six of them not even a year old - and marveled at the experience.
"These tournaments are very well organized," he said. "The things we like about Perfect Game is all the games start on time, there is very good umpiring - the umpires are very professional - and the people that are working here are very nice people."
He then expounded on that last comment.
"We've gone to other places and because we have all Hispanic boys, they tend to say 'stuff' to us," Esquivel said. "Down here we haven't had any problems. We just came to play baseball and that's what we like - everybody's here to play baseball."