LONG BEACH, Calif.—In addition to being the home of the Area Code Games for a week every summer, Blair Field serves as Long Beach State's home field during the spring. Over the last two seasons, the Dirtbags and their opponents have hit just seven home runs at Blair.
In 17 games over five days at the Area Codes, high school players swinging wood bats have hit as many home runs—seven—as college players swinging metal bats hit at Blair in 57 games over the last two years.
Last year, just two home runs were hit at the Area Codes. Andrew Knepper of ESPN HS has been involved with putting on the games for the last eight years, and he said the most homers he can remember being hit at the games in one year is four. But he has a good notion why power numbers have spiked this year: the weather has been much hotter and drier than usual, so the marine layer that usually hangs over Blair Field in the morning and evening has been absent.
On Thursday, a breeze blowing out to left field for part of the day was also a factor. But while the wind might have helped Conner Simonetti's opposite-field shot leave the park Thursday, Jacob Gatewood (Clovis, Calif.) needed no aid from the elements. His three-run homer for the Northern California Athletics was a no-doubter off the bat—and it left scouts buzzing.
With his team trailing Simonetti's Yankees 2-1 in the bottom of the third inning, the righthanded-hitting Gatewood came to the plate with two on and two out. Righty Jesse Roth tried to bust him up and in with a fastball, but the 6-foot-5 Gatewood got his arms extended and launched a towering, majestic blast down the left-field line. It came off the bat at 107 mph, according to TrackMan, and finally landed on the road beyond the wall, taking a high bounce over the DeMarini pickup parked on the other side of the street and hitting the chain-link fence beyond that.
"I knew I got it," Gatewood said. "It was a fastball up and in. I kind of like that pitch—right in the wheelhouse. The at-bat before, I was kind of flying open. So I wanted to make sure that I kept my shoulder in and make sure I was striding back toward the pitcher. It ended up working out for me, strategy-wise."
At 6-foot-5, 180 pounds, Gatewood remains very lanky, and as he matures he figures to grow into huge power. He showed Thursday that he already can hit the ball a very long way, making the act of projection more of a luxury than a necessity for scouts. He also flashed the ability to go the opposite way with authority earlier in the tournament, hitting a triple to right field. And the Southern California recruit is still just 16, a rising junior at Clovis High.
"I've put on probably about 15 pounds since last summer," Gatewood said. "I feel like as I continue to get stronger, the farther the ball goes. So hopefully I get some more pounds, you know?"
Gatewood played a few innings in center field Thursday, and it's easy to envision him using his long strides to chase down fly balls in big league outfields some day. But for now, he is a shortstop.
"I take a lot of pride in defense also—I like to play shortstop," Gatewood said. "I've heard that I'm probably going to have to move, but as long as I can stay there, I want to stay there."
He said he hopes to play short at USC, and he has even talked with the Trojans about walking on the football team (he is a quarterback for Clovis). But baseball is his first love, he said, and if he continues on his current trajectory, he could be a premium draft pick in 2014.
At the other end of the physical spectrum is Jack Meggs, a rail-thin 6-foot-1, 160-pound outfielder from Bellevue, Wash. Maybe he didn't make scouts gasp like Gatewood did, but Meggs had a strong day in his own right, and performing on the meant a lot to him.
The high-energy Meggs plays like the coach's son that he is—his father Lindsay is the head coach at Washington, where Meggs has committed.
"It's fun for me because he knows I've been coming to these things my whole life, and he sometimes tags along and has been dreaming about getting invited to something like this and getting a chance to do well, make a play or two and get a big hit," Lindsay Meggs said. "So for him, really kind of a dream come true. It's nice for me to see somebody who I know has put a lot of time in get rewarded."
Meggs started and played the whole game in center field for the Royals, leading them to a 3-2 win against the Reds. In the top of the sixth inning, Meggs made a full-extension diving catch in right-center to rob Riley Unroe of extra bases, stranding a runner in scoring position. He said he carried the momentum from that catch into the batter's box in the bottom of the frame.
"I had a pretty rough week to start with, saw some good pitching," Jack Meggs said. "I just settled in, settled my nerves. I made a good catch, that kind of got everything going, settled me down at the plate."
With two men on and one out in the bottom of the sixth, the lefthanded-hitting Meggs turned on a Chandler Blanchard fastball for a two-run double to right. That provided the Royals with their final margin of victory.
"He's a top of the order kind of pest—try to get on base, cause some problems and make people play fast catch," Lindsay Meggs said of his son. "He's barely 160 pounds, so he kind of understands that part of the game, just does his best to try to create some offense. He loves to play, absolutely loves it."
His passion was evident Thursday. So was his skill set, which could make him a valuable sparkplug for the Huskies.
Other Top Performers
• The final game of the day turned into a game of one-upmanship between two of the hottest hitters of the tournament: Brewers outfielder Alexander Jackson and Nationals first baseman Nick Longhi. No players have hit as many balls hard this week as that duo, and they kept mashing Thursday.
Jackson, a member of the class of 2014 like Gatewood, got things started with a sharp RBI single up the middle in the first inning. Longhi struck the next blow, lacing a double into the left-center gap. Jackson answered by tattooing a triple off the wall in dead center field in the sixth on a 90 mph fastball from Dany "Touki" Toussaint. TrackMan said the ball came off Jackson's bat at 107 mph, tied for the hardest-hit ball of the week.
In the bottom of the inning, Longhi hit a ringing single into the right-center gap. Its exit speed was 102 mph.
In his final at-bat an inning later, Jackson stayed back on a 72 mph curveball from Nick Lawrence, pulling it through the left side for a single.
More on Jackson and Longhi in Friday's tournament wrap-up.
• One scout mentioned Brewers righthander Phil Bickford (Ventura, Calif.) as a player who helped his prospect stock Thursday. The 6-foot-4, 190-pound Cal State Fullerton commit spotted his fastball very well in two perfect innings of work, striking out the side in order in the first against three players who had been swinging hot bats—Dalton Dulin, Matt McPhearson and Longhi. The putaway pitch on all three strikeouts was a fastball on the black. Bickford worked at 88-91 and bumped 92, showing a tick more velocity than he did in his first outing of the week, when he topped out at 90. He also showed good feel for a mid-70s breaking ball and a low-80s changeup.
• Toussaint (Coral Springs, Fla.) also struck out the side in his first inning of work for the Nationals, and he looked good doing it. In his first inning, the Miami recruit worked at 88-91 and touched 92, but he used low-70s curveballs as his out pitch for two of his strikeouts, and an 80 mph changeup for the other. He'll need to add some power to his curveball, but it has good spin and depth.
But after allowing Jackson's triple leading off the sixth, Toussaint quickly lost his rhythm and his stuff. His velocity dropped into the 86-88 range, his curveball got loopier, and he surrendered three runs.
• Royals first baseman Tommy Lane (Pendleton, Ore.) has swung the bat well this week, and he squared up a couple more line drives Thursday, including a single to left field in the sixth. A 6-foot-6, 215-pound lefthanded hitter, Lane excels at letting the ball travel and lining it into the left-center gap.
• Two Oregon State recruits have stood out for the Royals. Middle infielder Trace Loehr (Milwaukie, Ore.) has shown very smooth actions and good instincts at second base, as well as a knack for making contact from the left side. And righty John Pomeroy (Mossyrock, Wash.) worked a perfect seventh to preserve the Royals' victory Thursday, working in the 90-93 range. At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, Pomeroy gets outstanding extension in his delivery and has flashes a promising mid-70s breaking ball.
• The Athletics rolled out a pair of very intriguing arms Thursday. Lefthander Matt Krook (Hillsborough, Calif.) opened eyes in the first two innings, recording three strikeouts and flashing one of the best breaking balls in the tournament, a 78-82 mph hammer with tight spin (TrackMan said it spun at more than 3,000 RPMs, the most spin of any breaking ball at the games). He also showed solid velocity, working at 88-91, and mixed in an effective 83-85 cutter.
Krook lost his control abruptly in the third, walking four straight batters to force in a run. His velocity dropped to the 87-88 range in that frame. Still, he made a positive impression on scouts—though he's a Stanford commit, so scouts might not get to make a serious run at him until 2016.
The A's called upon righty Chandler Eden (Yuba City, Calif.) to extract them from the bases-loaded jam, and after allowing an RBI single he minimized the damage by inducing a 4-6-3 double play. Eden lacks physicality at 6-foot-1, 165 pounds, but he has a live arm that produces 88-92 mph fastballs with riding life and sharp 75-76 curveballs.
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