FORT MYERS, Fla. - First one in, last one out?
That is certainly the script that En Fuego Baseball hopes is followed at this week's 18u BCS Finals as the Perfect Game national championship tournament heads into its round-of-16 playoffs Thursday afternoon.
The Mobile, Ala.-based En Fuego squad that has been here since Saturday somehow dodged the worst of the rain delays and became one of the first teams to clinch an automatic berth into the playoffs at the 18u BCS Finals when it beat the Syracuse Sports Zone Chiefs, 6-4, in its sixth and final pool-play game Wednesday afternoon
En Fuego, which translates literally from Spanish to English as "on fire", made its move into the 16-team playoff bracket well in advance of the rest of the field, which will be set after the conclusion of pool-play Thursday morning. En Fuego won a pair of games on a much needed sun-soaked Wednesday, topping Next Level Baseball, 7-5, just before tripping up the Syracuse Sports Zone Chiefs.
"We've been coming here for the last three or four years and we try to get lower Alabama represented a little bit, along with the panhandle of Florida, Mobile and Mississippi," head coach Larry Thomas said Wednesday before the game against the Chiefs. "The kids love coming down here and we love the competition."
En Fuego also brings teams here to the PG Memorial Day East Classic as well as the BCS Finals.
"They love coming to Florida," Thomas said. "The kids get to see the different cultures and the different styles of play, and you get scouts out here and everybody wants to be seen. You just want to raise their bar and try to make them better players,
"Our main goal with En Fuego Baseball is we teach. We don't go out and recruit; we get our guys home-grown and we teach our guys from the minute they're 10, 11, 12 years old all the way up until they're 18."
En Fuego Baseball has existed as an organization for almost seven years and all of the coaches within the organization have had some sort of experience in professional baseball.
Thomas, a right-hander, was a second round pick by the Chicago White Sox in the 1991 draft out of the University of Maine and was a set-up man for the ChiSox for three seasons (1995-97); he appeared in 57 games in 1996 and finished 2-3 in 30 2/3 innings with a 3.23 ERA. One of the other coaches in the organization is Rick Patterson, who coached on the minor league level for almost 25 years.
"We try to teach the kids the pro-style of baseball," Thomas said. "That way they're very well prepared at the high school (level) and beyond into college. You've got to earn their respect and once they know you've played (professionally), they kind of feel you out and then they actually know that you know something."
Thomas and Patterson worked together at Bishop State Community College for a spell and Thomas is now the pitching coach at Faulkner State Community College in Baldwin County, Ala.
"This is kind of like recruiting for me," he said. "I can come out and see different kids play and try to catch some juniors and seniors that haven't signed yet. You're always looking for talent."
Thomas said most of the teams he's brought here in the past have been somewhat incomplete - the squads that boasted very good pitching lacked the necessary offensive skills, and vice versa. This year's group seems a little more balanced and more capable of taking on the national-level competition this tournament offers.
The En Fuego team Thomas has guided into the playoffs includes four 2012 or 2013 prospects who have either signed with or committed to either junior college or NAIA programs.
Catcher/outfielder Nick Lowe (2013, Satsuma, Ala.) has committed to NAIA Williams Carey College in Hattiesburg, Miss., and middle-infielder Cody Christian (2012, Satsuma), right-hander David Mosely (2012, Mobile, Ala.), and shortstop/righty Toby Thomas (2012, 8 Mile, Ala.) are all going the juco route.
Christian is headed to Shelton Community College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Mosely to Faulkner State CC and Thomas to Pensacola (Fla.) State CC.
Lowe was 7-for-16 (.471) with four doubles and five RBI in five games at the tournament. Thomas, Larry's son, was 7-for-20 (.350) in six games with a pair of doubles and triples, with four RBI and seven runs scored, and also pitched effectively against the Chiefs.
Tyler Odom (2012, Hattiesburg, Miss.) was 9-for-20 (.450) with two doubles, a home run, seven RBI and seven runs in six games, and right-hander Jordan Brown (2012, Penix City, Ala.) pitched nine innings of one-hit ball, and allowed no earned runs and struck out 14.
None of these players are highly ranked and my feel like they have been lost in the shuffle.
"You're only as good as your competition, and they know when they come into these (PG) tournaments they're definitely playing against the best," Thomas said. "The main reason I come here (to the BCS Finals) is because I know they're going to be playing against the best.
"You're playing against some Latin guys, you're playing against some D-Is and our kids kind of like that; they're going to junior college so they want to show they've been over-looked," he said. "They leave it out on the field."
En Fuego recently played in the PG WWBA 18u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., June 29 through July 6 and missed the playoffs despite finishing 5-1-1. The team then took a couple of weeks off before coming down here.
"What's big in our organization is weight-training," Thomas said. "We kind of space it out so they can have four or five days at home to do their weight-training and then continue it on the road."
While En Fuego might lack some of the D-I star power that a lot of other teams in the 18u BCS Finals field possess, the coaches and player expect to come into a tournament like this and be competitive. Its 6-0 pool-play record certainly speaks volumes.
"These guys are scrappy; they like to play," Thomas said. "If they think they're down and out, they're going to battle until the end. We've got a lot of kids that I wouldn't say have a chip on their shoulder, but they have something to prove. I think they've done well enough to leave it out on the field and let the scouts make their decisions after that."