Technically, Saturday was the fourth day of the Tournament of Stars, but it was the third day of games. Friday consisted of mainly workouts and simulated batting practices, no games. It was more laid back for scouts and college recruiters, plus the weather was much better. On Thursday, temperatures went into the triple digits and the humidity made it much worse.
The highlight of Saturday came during the fourth game with AABC and PONY vying for a spot in Sunday's bronze medal game. Starting for PONY was Lance McCullers Jr., a well-known prospect for 2012, son of an ex-big leaguer and already a favorite among a couple Baseball America staffers.
McCullers is a 6-foot-1, 180-pound infielder/righthander from Jesuit High in Tampa. I first saw McCullers—along with dozens of scouts and recruiters—at the World Wood Bat Championships in Jupiter, Fla. in 2008. He was an incoming freshman then and hadn't thrown a varsity pitch yet. He had an 88-90 mph fastball and also showed a nasty curveball. Almost a year later he made an appearance at USA Baseball's National Training Complex in Cary, N.C. for the Labor Day Cup for Florida Travel Ball, his summer team. He showed the same nasty curve with a little more velocity and ran his fastball up to 94.
Almost another year later, he's back in Cary in hopes of earning a spot on the 18U National Team. His first pitch of the day was a 95 mph fastball to shortstop Tony Wolters, the Indians' 2010 third-round pick. McCullers got Wolters to ground out to short on the next pitch, another fastball at 95.
Left fielder Collin Shaw saw a few more pitches—three fastballs that were 95, 96 and 94 as well has two curves at 83—but struck out swinging on the hammer. Second baseman Brooks Marlow jumped on the first pitch, a 96 mph heater, and promptly grounded out to second to end the inning.
McCullers' second inning of work didn't go as easily, but his stuff was still dominant. He started center fielder Bubba Starling off with a changeup and then jammed him with a fastball for a soft lineout to second base. Then right fielder Michael Lorenzen, the Rays' seventh-round pick, got a base hit on a 95 mph fastball. It wasn't great contact, but the best anyone got against McCullers in the game. Lorenzen then stole second and moved to third on a groundout. First baseman Joey Gallo managed to reach out and flick a single to left field, driving in Lorenzen. Catcher Elvin Soto worked a walk and then McCullers closed the inning and his outing by getting DH Ty Washington to fly out easily to center.
"I didn't have my best stuff today, but I tried to battle and felt good out there," McCullers said. "I didn't have my best location. I was high on a lot balls. I didn't execute some two-strike pitches. Hopefully I'll be able to locate a little better next time."
McCullers fastball was mostly 94-95, touched 96 a few times and dropped below 94 once. His curveball was a nasty hammer with sharp break and good depth. It was mostly 83-84. His changeup showed some fade and was 81 mph. His command wasn't great, but nothing out of the ordinary for a young arm and his stuff allows him to get away with it. The changeup isn't a brand new pitch for him, but he hasn't needed it much in high school. He's learned the importance of it from his dad, the former major league pitcher of the same name.
"Ever since I was young my dad stressed the changeup," McCullers said. "Without offspeed you can't get anybody out because everyone can hit a fastball. I've always had it, I just don't get a lot of opportunity to throw it. I'm trying to work that in now as I get older and kids get to be better hitters."
Two of the hitters McCullers faced have been through the showcase circuit before and faced some great pitchers already in their young playing careers.
Wolters, a University of San Diego signee, said he was impressed with McCullers' stuff.
"He was good," Wolters said. "He was live, he was quick and pretty hard. He was the best one out here that I saw. He's really good, for sure. I think he compares really well to Karsten Whitson because of the good curveball and everything. He's really good for how old he is and I was really impressed."
Lorenzen, hitting fifth for AABC, worked the count before hitting a soft line drive to left field for a single. Lorenzenwalked through his first at-bat after the game.
"The first pitch was a pretty hard fastball and I thought it was just deceptive," Lorenzen said. "Because he's kind of a little guy, so I didn't think he'd be chucking 96. Then the second pitch, I thought he was going to groove me another fastball, but he threw me a slider and it was dirty and he throws it hard. So that caught me off-guard and I kind of jumped out of the way a little bit. He was just kind of trying to spot and I was just trying to battle. I got to 3-2—and I was surprised I got to 3-2—and he came inside on me and I threw my barrel out and got a base hit."
Lorenzen wasn't aware that McCullers is the son of a former big leaguer, but the news didn't surprise him.
"His presence is pretty good," Lorenzen said. "He's got confidence out there, which you can tell. I noticed that when he first got on the mound and he's going to have a good future."
McCullers' arm strength has improved year-to-year thanks to long-tossing and a throwing program Jesuit coaches Richie Warren and Geoff Goetz (a 1997 first-round pick) put their players through. McCullers also does plenty of core and leg work. His innings have been limited the last couple of years because Jesuit has had other arms that can control the game, including lefthander Daniel Gibson, a Florida signee and 26th-round pick of the Brewers.
"When I was a freshman and sophomore this year, there's never been a need for me to go more one or two innings because Daniel has been so dominant," McCullers said. "We have young guys who can fill up innings too. Next year I'm sure the plan is to stretch me out a little more because as I get older I want to get in the role of a dominant starting pitcher, not just a closer."
Contributing: Conor Glassey
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