FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The 48 teams boasting rosters bulging with players that in most cases will be high-spirited eighth- and ninth-graders this fall have come from across the country to gather on local playing fields for the 2nd annual 13u PG BCS Finals national championship.
They've come from as far away as California and Delaware, Ohio and Maryland, along with the expected influx of teams from Florida and Georgia. And they've also come over from Texas -- eight squads in all -- including one from the national powerhouse Houston Heat Select Baseball program, which is based in Spring, Texas.
The Houston Heat organization under the direction of Phil Cross always wants a seat at the table at the country's most prestigious age-group events, and the 13u PG BCS Finals is no exception.
"We want to challenge (the players) and let them see teams they typically don't see; that's why we travel," Houston Heat 13u head coach Raj Baz said Saturday morning from the Player Development 5-Plex, about an hour before the Heat was to play their second game at the tournament.
"We want to see the best and we want to put them in the best scenarios across the country," Baz continued. "We play a lot of the same teams in Houston, and we try to travel two or three times a year to see different venues and different teams, and just not knowing who's what and what the arms are like or what their batting lineup is like.
"That's the challenge for these kids to compete at a better level; people usually don't travel unless they think they can out there and win it, so you're going to see everybody's best."
The Heat dropped their tournament opener on Friday, losing to the EvoShield Canes, 9-7; they bounced back in a big way Saturday morning, blasting the West Boynton Rays, 19-4. They had one more pool-play game remaining Saturday afternoon before all 12 pools will be shuffled for another round of three pool-play games on Sunday and Monday. The 12 pool champions from the second set of games and four at-large teams advance to the tournament's playoffs, which begin Tuesday.
The bats worked well for the Heat in their first two games here: they hit .396 (21-for-53) with four extra base hits as team, and plated 26 runs. Richard Diaz (2018, Cypress, Texas) went 2-for-4 with a triple and five RBI; Kernie Baker (2017, Needville, Texas) was 2-for-5 with a triple and five RBI; and Thomas Baltz (2018, Sugarland, Texas) went 3-for-5 with a double and five runs scored.
Right-hander Shane Baz (2017, Cypress, Texas) pitched three innings of one-hit ball with four strikeouts and allowed no earned runs after getting the start Saturday morning.
Despite their young age, Raj Baz said there are players on this Heat 13u team that have played together for as many as five years. The Heat roster lists only 10 players, with hometowns like Cypress, Houston, The Woodlands and Sugarland. Three of the players will be freshmen in high school in the fall and the other seven will be eighth-graders.
"We don't cut and add (players) too much. We stick to our core group and try to develop them and get them ready for high school; that's our big deal here," Baz said. "They're a great bunch of kids and they have good team chemistry."
Traveling 1,000 miles from east Texas to southwest Florida can contribute a lot toward building that team chemistry. It can also help an early teen do a little bit of growing up while learning valuable lessons about what it takes and what it means to be part of a team.
"A trip like this helps because you're away from home and mom and dad aren't on top of you and around you the whole time," Baz said. "We try to do everything as a team -- we'll go to dinner as a team, show up as a team -- just like it should work. We really stress the team aspect of it. Right now it's all about team. Later it's about you but right now you play for the front of the shirt, not the back of it."
With players this age there is still a lot of teaching and instruction involved on a day to day basis, but Raj pointed out that most of the guys who are at a national championship event like the 13u PG BCS Finals are already decidedly serious about baseball. Some have already started refining their efforts.
"I think it's polishing now," Baz said. "By 13 if you don't have your discipline and mechanics down, those are hard habits to break. By 13 this is where you find out whether you're going to play baseball further or if you're going to play tennis."
He noted that a lot of the kids at this level have started to establish themselves fundamentally but are still very much developing their mental approach to the game.
"It's knowing that whether you're up 10-to-nothing or down 10-to-nothing, nobody outside of the fence should be able to tell; your body language has got to stay perfect and great," Baz said. "This year has been about mental fortitude and just polishing as much as anything."
This is Baz's ninth year of coaching, all at the youth level. He helped the Heat's Cross start the younger age-group programs a few years back and has enjoyed watching the progression, especially with the group that is here.
"It's mostly been with these kids coming up ," he said of his involvement with the Heat program. "I've watched them grow from little guys in the outfield picking flowers to where they are now. Most of them have hit puberty and have developed their own character, and most of them are very receptive and coachable, especially with the guys that know for sure they want to further their careers in baseball; they try to soak in as much as possible.
"Every year their attention span improves. At 6, 7 and 8 (years old) you had their attention for about 10 seconds and now it's about 15," Baz added with a laugh. "But all that starts at home; it doesn't start here. It starts with mom and dad at home -- 'Look me in the eye, yes sir, no sir' -- and most of these kids are well-raised with great parents."