The USA Baseball 16U team begins play in Mexico Aug. 19 in the IBAF World 'AA' 16U Youth Championships.
This year marks the 14th edition of the tournament and the US enters as defending champions. They will face off against 10 other teams, since the Phillipines recently withdrew from the competition.
The US will begin pool play in Group A against Mexico, Brazil, Chinese Taipei and Australia. Group B features Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Japan, Indonesia and the Netherlands. The top four teams from each group go on to a second round-robin format, with the final two teams playing for the championship.
"For such a short time, they like each other—they pull for each other," 16U head coach Ernie Padron said about his squad. "They're very disciplined, on time and doing all the little things that help you get together as a team. It's a good group."
The 20-man team gives a sneak peek at some of the top players for the 2013 and 2014 classes. . . and even a pitcher from the 2015 class.
That pitcher is Joe DeMers, a rising freshman at College Park High in Pleasant Hill, Calif. Already 6 feet and 200 pounds as a 14-year-old, DeMers is throwing his fastball in the 87-89 mph range and topped out at 91. He also mixes in a curveball, slider and changeup.
Touching 90 is a new thing for DeMers, who said the first time he did it was earlier this summer in an exhibition game with his high school's summer team.
Even more impressive than his precocious velocity is DeMers' demeanor on the mound.
"When I get ahead in the count, I usually pound the fastball in, instead of going to offspeed right away," DeMers said. "And then to power hitters, I'll back-pitch them—start them off with a breaking ball and then fastballs later in the count to throw them off."
"You can't tell he's only 14 years old just by the way he handles himself and his composure," Padron said. "He was up to 91 his last game out and he just pounds the strike zone. He's aggressive and his demeanor on the mound is just beyond none. You just can't fathom that he's only 14 years old right now. He's going to be a good one."
He already shows good feel for a changeup, which is rare for a player about to leave high school, not to mention one that has yet to step foot in a high school classroom.
"He's a strong kid and he looks like he's going to get stronger," Padron said. "He has that look of a power arm with the big legs and the big backside. He does use all that to his advantage and it's easy, which is what makes his changeup look even better. Because, even as hard as he throws, his changeup is very devastating to hitters. His changeup is his best secondary pitch. His curveball is good, but his changeup is his best pitch. I would use that as an out pitch, right now."
Part of DeMers' maturity comes his experience with Team USA's 14U team that went to Nicaragua last year.
"We've had the 14U program for five years now and there are three or four guys a year now that are coming in with international experience," 16U director Jeff Singer said. "It's something we didn't have before and there's no doubt that's something—whether it's just dealing with the living conditions when you're out of your comfort zone in the United States, or just the pressure and understanding what the crowd is like and what we need to bring as the United States—that's huge."
DeMers said teammates have been asking him what to expect in terms of the stadium environment, the living conditions and, of course, the food.
"In Nicaragua, we had rice with every meal and beans with every meal," DeMers said. "Some nights they said it was steak. . . but I'm not sure what it was."
The hitter that has stood out the most for the 16U team is outfielder Austin Meadows, a 2013 prospect from Grayson (Ga.) High.
At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, Meadows is an impressive athlete that is taking time off from his high school football team—where he plays running back and outside linebacker—to play for Team USA.
On the baseball field, he bats and throws lefthanded. He shows a good feel for hitting, has some power potential and has speed that can really impact the game on both sides of the ball.
"He's a five-tool guy," Singer said. "He's going to play center field and hit leadoff for us. He'll get on base and get himself into scoring position. He can also run the ball down. It's a big outfield—353 (feet) down the lines, 400 to center and 420 in the gaps and it's at elevation, so the ball carries. So, to have good outfield play is important and that's going to be big. We took advantage of some less-than-stellar outfield play by our opponents last year, so I understand how important it is to have good, strong outfield play and speed out there. . . He's a special player."
Athletics come naturally to Meadows. His father played football and baseball at Morehead State, and his mother played softball at Georgia State and Georgia Southern.
"My mom actually might have a better arm than me," Meadows said. "She can throw it."
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