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Tournaments : : Story
Burn puts heat on 16u WS field
Jeff Dahn        
Published: Saturday, August 04, 2012

MARIETTA, Ga. -- The Florida Burn came into this week's 16u Perfect Game World Series without any highly ranked prospects, without a flashy, star-studded history and, really, without any lofty expectations.

So it only stands to reason that the first-year Burn would emerge from pool-play with a 6-1 record, the championship in 16u PGWS Pool F and a berth in Sunday's semifinal round of the prestigious 16-team tournament.

It wouldn't be accurate to say Florida Burn head coach and former big-league pitcher Mark Guthrie is surprised with his team's fortunes but, quite frankly, advancing to the final four of such a talent-laden event really wasn't something he considered.

"We don't really get carried away with it," Guthrie said Saturday night of the high expectations. "We don't have that guy that can drive the ball out of the park and we don't rely on certain hitters, but the kids all seem to rise up and do a pretty good job, and it's kind of a different guy every game.

"I wouldn't say we had low expectations but when the competition is this good I don't think you can come in and expect to roll through one of these pools; the teams are just too good."

But make no mistake, the Burn is one hot team. After losing their tournament opener to the Diamond Devils on Tuesday, they rallied for six straight wins -- including two on a rain-plagued Saturday -- to win Pool F with a 6-1 record. They will face the Pool E runner-up Orlando Scorpions (5-2) in the first 16u PGWS semifinal at 9 a.m. Sunday on Field 1 at the East Cobb Complex.

The Pool E champion and tournament host East Cobb Astros (6-0-1) will square-off against Pool F runner-up Houston Banditos Black (5-2) in the second semifinal at 11:30 a.m., also on Field 1.

The Burn started the day Saturday by beating Team Citius, 8-0, in a game shortened to 1 1/3 innings by a hard, pounding rain storm. Both teams agreed to call the game complete so Florida Burn could finish a game against the Indiana Prospects on an available field that started Friday and needed to be completed because it had playoff implications. The Burn won that game, 1-0, to clinch the playoff berth.

Florida Burn rapped out seven hits and plated eight runs in its two half innings at the plate against Citius, its best production of the tournament. The Burn enter Sunday's playoffs with a meager .231 team batting average and with only nine extra-base hits in seven games.

Randy Oliva (2014, Tampa, Fla.) and Deacon Liput (2015, Ovieda, Fla.) have been exceptions. Oliva was 6-for-13 (.462) with two doubles and home run and six RBI in seven games, and Liput 6-for-15 (.400) with a triple, home run, five RBI and five runs scored.

"We've struggled a little bit at the plate and we kind of pieced together a few inning and manufactured  some runs here and there, but that was really the first game where we squared-up some balls and did what those hitters normally do," Guthrie said.

The Burns' pitching, on the other hand, has been outstanding. Eleven pitchers combined for a 1.21 ERA in 40 1/3 innings while allowing 35 hits and striking out 53. In 8 1/3 combined innings on Saturday, right-handers Tyler Shambora (2013, Venice, Fla.) and John Gray (2014, Orange City, Fla.) and lefty Dillon McCollough (2015, Deltona, Fla.) allowed no earned runs on eight hits with 10 strikeouts.

"Our pitchers have really been amazing," Guthrie said. "They've done a good job keeping hitters off-balance, expanding the strike zone and throwing strikes and pitching like they know what they're doing. It's been pretty impressive."

Guthrie pitched for 15 years from 1989 through 2003 in the major leagues with eight teams, including his first seven seasons with the Minnesota Twins. He was a seventh-round draft pick of the Twins out of LSU in the 1987 MLB amateur draft, and knows a thing or two about pitching.

"We don't really have one guy that stands out as an ace, I guess, but we have a whole staff of guys that can do the job on any given day," he said. "We don't really have guys that throw 90 mph but they all locate and they all throw strikes and they can spin the ball pretty well. It's fun to call games for them and it's fun to watch them pitch because they do a nice job of working their craft."

This is the first year the Florida Burn has existed as an organization and it started out with three 16u teams. One covers Florida's west coast from Tampa to Fort Myers, a second is on the east coast and covers the area from Jacksonville to Vero Beach, and the third is an all-encompassing underclass unit with a lot of freshmen on the roster.

The team here this week consists of players from all three of those teams and this marks the first tournament it has played together as a unit.

"We like the kids to play for different coaches because on our coaching staff, each guy has something different to offer," Guthrie said. "(The players) kind of come from all over and we've been pretty lucky with the talent that we've got, and it's been a really nice summer for everybody."

Guthrie described the Burn's participation in the 16u PGWS as one of the highlights of the summer. In a way it validates the 46-year-old's reasoning for getting involved with youth travel ball.

"This is what you get together for," he said. "You have quality kids and talented kids and I think it helps the recruiting process to play against the best and see how you do. It serves as verification for themselves to understand how good of players they can be and it's really the best way to get better. The competition we've seen this week has probably been the best of any event we've ever been involved with."

With his major league experience, Guthrie obviously has a lot to share with the youngsters now under his charge. But he is humble and smart enough to know you can't push anything on 16-year-olds, especially the ones who are already being recognized for the special skills they possess on the baseball field.

"These kids are so advanced in certain areas I think you have to earn their respect as a coach. They can read through it if you're feeding them a line of crap," Guthrie said. "I think experience helps them to buy into what you're teaching them initially, but then if it doesn't work and you can't adjust to it ... you know there are a lot guys who have played that can't coach."

In the end, it is Guthrie who feels fortunate.

"We're very lucky. We're winning because we have talented kids and they play the game the right way," he said, "and as coaches, too, we're lucky to be around them."

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