FORT MYERS, Fla. – It was a Florida Burn/Elite Squad Baseball showcase Monday at jetBlue Park for the WWBA East Memorial Day Classic. The two programs had teams competing for both the 16u and 18u titles and when these two programs meet, you can expect plenty of excitement.
Elite Squad 16u Prime and Florida Burn 2016 Pennant met in the 16u WWBA East Memorial Day championship game on the same field the World Series champion Boston Red Sox call their home in the spring. The game was coasting along for the most part and hits were scarce.
Elite Squad’s Eric Rivera took the first pitch of the ballgame to left-center field for a base hit which might have given most the sense there was going to be some offense in this championship matchup. That most definitely was not the case.
Both teams got starts out of their pitchers. Elite Squad’s Nick McDonald went five innings, giving up just three hits, a walk, and an unearned run, while striking out four. Opposing him was Florida Burn’s Israel Cordero, who threw six innings and surrendered just three hits, two walks, and an earned run while tallying six strikeouts.
“Israel did a great job today,” said Burn coach Craig Faulkner. “He kept the ball down, got a lot of sink, kept them off-balance; he was perfect.”
The first run of the game didn’t come until the bottom of the fourth inning, when Austin Bergner scored on an error at shortstop. With the lights-out performances on the mound, you got the feeling one run could end up being enough.
It was not. In a last-chance effort, the Elite Squad, one of the tournament’s most offensively productive teams with a team batting average of .318, rallied in the top of the seventh to plate two runs and take a 2-1 lead into the bottom frame.
The excitement was overwhelmingly coming from the Elite Squad players and fans, which had taken the wind out of the Burn sails.
A feisty team with a lot of fight, the Burn started off the frame with a Bergner single to left field. Rylan Thomas and Nicholas Baldor were then both hit by pitches to load the bases with neon orange and none out. Momentum had shifted once again.
Tyler Dyson, who had a big bat for the Burn all tournament, connected drove in Bergner to tie the game at 2-2. Dyson went 2-for-2 in the game and was hit by a pitch. He finished the tournament 7-for-15 (.467 avg.).
The game winning run stood ninety-feet away in Thomas, and there was still no outs. Ben Rowdon took the first two pitches for balls before looking at strike one. Then, catching everyone in jetBlue Park by surprise, Rowdon squared to bunt upon delivery and executed the suicide squeeze perfectly, scoring Thomas and sending the Burn home champions.
“I just went up there thinking sacrifice fly, but my coach said ‘go ahead and try to lay one down here’ and I had to do it for the team,” said Rowdon, who earned MVP honors after going 5-for-14 with a double, three RBI, and outstanding defensive play all tournament.
“It’s a pretty good high-odds play if you can get the ball down and Ben Rowdon is a good-hands type guy and I said ‘if you feel it and you can lay the bunt down, lay the bunt down and we’ll take our chances on them not being able to make a good throw and get us out at the plate’,” said Faulkner.
The Florida Burn organization finished the 2013 circuit with a WWBA World Championship title and has started off fresh in 2014 with the 16u WWBA East Memorial Day title.
“Anytime you play the Elite, they’ll give you a tough game,” added Faulkner. “I just like how our kids battled.”
The Florida Burn won their first four games by a combined score of 35-3, coasting into Monday’s playoff matchup. It got tougher for the Burn on Monday morning. They defeated the Scorpions 2016 Prime, 2-0 to advance to the semifinals against the South Florida Storm Blue, where it took clutch heroics to advance to the championship game.
After falling behind early, 2-0, the Burn battled back to tie the game before eventually having a huge opportunity to win in the bottom of the seventh inning. However, great pitching and defense from South Florida kept the bases loaded and no outs scenario for the Burn from becoming the deciding factor, leaving all three runners stranded and sending the game into extra innings.
In the bottom of the eighth, Burn’s Zak Wilson came up with the clutch hit, a walk-off double to send his team to the championship game.
“I struggled my first two at-bats so I went up there with a different mindset to get the job done,” said Wilson. “We’re unreal. We play together and we compete together and we’re out here to win.”
It took two comebacks and two walk-offs in back-to-back games for the Burn to capture the championship.
“It was clutch hitting in the end when we needed it,” Faulkner said. “Great pitching and clutch hitting is what wins baseball games. These guys compete. They’re a good club.”
“We have some very talented players on this team and strong pitching; just clutch players and guys that know how to play the game,” added Faulkner. “Florida Burn is about trying to do the little things right to make the kids better players and winning is a byproduct of doing the little things right.”
The Florida Burn had to be just about perfect to beat the incredibly talented Elite Squad from south Florida. The Elite Squad not only tore the cover off the ball all weekend, but they got some great pitching performances, posting four shutouts, including two in Monday’s playoff matchups.
Elite Squad left-handed pitcher Jesus Luzardo took home the MVPitcher honors after earning two wins on seven innings of work, giving up no runs or hits and just a lone walk while tallying 16 strikeouts.
“I couldn’t have done it without the rest of my team,” said Luzardo. “The whole team was backing me up with good defense. It’s a great honor. A lot of hard work pays off.”
Luzardo’s stuff was working this weekend, as he wasn’t touched for a single base hit and his pitches didn’t find too many bats at all.
“It was wood bat, so I was working a lot of pitches in and commanding my fastball was my biggest achievement,” Luzardo said. “I had all three of my pitches working well. I had good feel for all of them, so it was easy to go out there and just pitch.”
Both programs expect a lot of success out of these teams, who showed promising potential and grit to execute during important game situations. Both teams hope to be holding a few more trophies by the end of the summer.
2014 16u WWBA East Memorial Day Classic champions: Florida Burn 2016 Pennant
2014 16u WWBA East Memorial Day Classic runner-up: Elite Squad 16u Prime
2014 16u WWBA East Memorial Day Classic MVP: Ben Rowdon, Florida Burn
2014 16u WWBA East Memorial Day Classic MV-Pitcher: Jesus Luzardo, Elite Squad
While the younger Florida Burn and Elite Squad teams collected their trophies and vacated the jetBlue Park dugouts, more Florida Burn and Elite Squad players took their spot. The Florida Burn 2015 Pennant and Elite Squad 17u Prime matched up for the 18u WWBA East Memorial Day Championship.
The coaches had another championship game to stick around for. The Florida Burn were hoping for a WWBA East Memorial Day Championship sweep, while Elite Squad was hoping to split titles and take home a championship trophy of their own. More exciting, high-level baseball was to be played in the Fenway Park replica jetBlue Park.
Elite Squad’s Anthony Molina took the bump to start the game, topping out at 93 mph (miles per hour) in the first. The Burn were able to manufacture a run in the top of the first inning before Elite Squad tied it up in the bottom half of the inning. That was the extent of the action as the storm sirens sounded, sending both teams to their dugouts before completing the first inning.
After close to two hours of waiting for the all-clear, the teams met at home plate and decided they would be co-champions; a bittersweet ending to a well-fought weekend for both of these programs. However, the competitive nature of both teams came out and a rock-paper-scissors duel occurred with all the players gathering in a circle in anticipation. It didn’t count for anything necessarily, but the Florida Burn won that game.
The Florida Burn squad took a 6-0 record into the championship game, winning by a combined score of 36-12. Monday’s playoff games were not by any means a walk in the park. The Burn escaped the quarterfinals with a 2-1 win over the South Florida Prospects 17u team before beating FTB Chandler, 7-2, and advancing to the championship game.
The team was paced by great pitching performance from MVPitcher Dillon McCollough and Michael Byrne.
McCullough threw 5.2 innings, collecting a win while giving up just a lone walk and tallying 13 strikeouts.
Byrne kept pace with his teammate, throwing 8 innings and surrendering four hits while also collecting 13 strikeouts.
“I’m not an overpowering pitcher,” explained McCollugh. “I have to hit my spots and that’s what I did. The changeup was probably my go-to pitch, even when I fell behind in counts.”
On the other side, the Elite Squad also went 6-0 on their way to the championship matchup with their familiar foe. They outscored their opponents by a combined total of 49-12, defeating SWFL 17u Grey 10-6 in a semifinal matchup.
The Elite Squad lit up the hit column throughout the tournament, tallying a jaw-dropping .365 batting average (62-for-170).
“Honestly speaking, I expect a lot out of this team, and a big reason for that is coach Alan Kunkel,” said Elite Squad coach Richie Palmer. “He’s one of the best hitting coaches that I’ve been around. I think not only did we get better personnel-wise from last year, I think that we’re also better because of the coaching that we’ve brought in.”
Highlighting the electrifying Elite Squad lineup was MVP Elih Marrero. He went 11-for-21 (.545 average) with five doubles, two triples, nine RBI, and ten runs scored.
“I had a good game plan going into this weekend,” Marrero said. “I’ve been working hard and talking to my dad a lot on the phone. I had a coach wake up early in the morning and throw me BP (batting practice). I came here with a game plan and it worked.”
Marrero missed last year with an injury, but worked with his dad’s Cincinnati Reds Rookie League team to come back strong. It’s proved to be working.
“It’s a special group of kids,” said Palmer. “They’ve been through hardships together and I think that’s drawn them closer together. They certainly play like a team that’s been playing together for a while.”
Unfortunately, neither team got to earn the championship trophy outright, but Palmer had a pretty good forecast of how it probably would’ve gone.
“It probably would’ve been the same type of game as the last one: 3-2 last inning,” Palmer said. “It’s always like that playing these guys. We match up all the time and it’s always a great challenge playing them. They are a very well coached team. I think it’s two programs that both have a winning tradition, but also care a whole lot about their kids and what they’re doing for them.”
This weekend was a confidence boost for both programs heading into the long summer circuit. The bar has been set, and only a championship will met those expectations.
“I’ll expect to be here more often now,” said Byrne. “If we keep playing they way we are, we should be playing in jetBlue Park a lot more often.”
“This is a strong, competitive team,” Marrero said. “We hit one-through-nine and everybody on the bench picks each other up. It’s gonna be an awesome summer. I think we’re gonna do something big.”
2014 18u WWBA East Memorial Day Classic MVP: Elih Marrero, Elite Squad 17u Prime