At about 1:30 today, after the North and South squads took batting practice, some serious rain started falling, sending everyone scattering for cover and making a mess of the field. The noise it created from hitting the metal roof covering the stands was deafening and the torrential downpour lasted for about 20 or 30 minutes. It cleared up after that and, after a little TLC, Firemen’s Field looked great, all things considered. However, the weather forced the event supervisors to limit today’s games to eight innings apiece. Tomorrow’s first game got moved up to 9 a.m. and both of those games will now be scheduled as 11-inning affairs. There are also some wacky rule twists that I learned about today. To allow as much playing time as possible for everyone, the home team bats in the final inning, even if they’re ahead, and the lineups have 10 spots. On to today’s action . . .
Game 1: South 11, North 3
Lefthander Steven Rodriguez started for the South team and Keyvius Sampson started for the North, who got off to an early lead as catcher Austin Maddox hit an RBI single to score LeVon Washington in the top the of the first and then scored another run on a fielder’s choice. It was good to see Washington, who wasn’t at yesterday’s batting practice session, but I don’t believe Dane or Reggie Williams (no relation) made the trip to Sebring. Also, I thought I saw Mychal Givens yesterday, but didn’t see him today.
As someone who spent three years in Guam as a child, Washington said he’s used to playing in the heat.
"It was different down there," Washington said. "It was fun. I was just like 9 years old, but I met some good people and it was really hot year-round. You wake up on Christmas and it’s still 95 degrees out."
The South squad answered with a run of their own in the bottom of the first inning. Deven Marrero hit a single and then scored after Danny Canela laced a double to the wall in left-center field.
Canela walked me through the at-bat against Sampson.
"He threw me a fastball, then a changeup, then a fastball that I fouled off, then another changeup and I just took it the other way and stayed back," Canela said. "It felt good, I got some good wood on it."
While Marrero had a couple singles on the day, it was his glove that really shined. In the first inning—playing shortstop—he charged a slow chopper in and to his right hit by Brandon Lee and made an off-balance throw to get him at first base. The next inning, flipping positions to second base to let Stephen Perez play shorstop, Marrero made a diving stop up the middle and then flipped the ball from his glove, while still on the ground, to get the force out second base.
"That’s just routine," Marrero said with a smile after the game. "I’ve been playing for a while and I’m just out here to have fun. It’s been a great experience, being able to play with the best players in Florida.
In addition to the stellar glove work, Marrero also recorded two hits on the day.
"I haven’t faced pitching like this in a while and I just wanted to get the the bat on the ball and move the runners over," he said. "I felt okay. I’m just trying to show all these people what South Florida is all about."
There was a little scare in the fourth inning when catcher Steve Baron appeared to get beaned right in the ear hole by a Garrett Bush fastball. He grimaced and crouched down on the ground after taking off his helmet. He got up and ran down to first base, but was lifted for a pinch runner, but stayed in the game.
As it turns out, the ball didn’t hit him directly in the head.
"It bounced off my shoulder and hit my ear hole," Baron explained. "I thought it hit my face because my face felt swollen, but my shoulder hurts the most."
As a catcher, Baron said he’s used to getting beat up, but he was frustrated when he got hit again—this time on the arm—in his third at-bat.
"The first pitch he threw was a fastball in that hit my elbow and I was just like, ‘Oh my God,’" Baron said. "I really just wanted to get up there and hit."
The South team tied it up in the fourth and never looked back. They got three more in the bottom of the fifth with back-to-back RBI singles from Marrero and Matthew Watson, and then unloaded for five more runs in the bottom of the sixth. Both teams scored a run in the seventh inning and the game ended with the South team winning, 11-3.
Game 2: East 7, West 5
Glancing over the rosters, it was easy to see that the West team were the favorites of this year’s Baseball Classic. But the team with the best players doesn’t always win—that’s why they play the games.
Lefthander Brian Johnson started for the East team and lefthander Patrick Schuster—he of the four no-hitters this spring—started for the West. Johnson, who was sitting 85-89 mph this year, looked good. He was 89-91 and even touched 93 once, though it wasn’t a strike. He’s a fast worker and had trouble finishing off his breaking ball that was 74-76 mph. Schuster has some funk to his delivery. It’s a little herky-jerky and he steps toward the lefthanded batters’ box, throwing across his body. He issued a walk and hit two batters, but was also deceptive. His fastball was 89-91, touched 92 and he also threw some slower breaking balls in the 67-70 range that he could locate. Over three innings of work he gave up just one hit and struck out five.
The West team looked to be running away with it for the first half of the game. After hitting several home runs in batting practice yesterday and then nearly knocking over the L-screen with line drives in the batting cages today, third baseman Bobby Borchering has been fun to watch. He walked in his first trip to the plate, but in the third inning he sent a pitch from sidearmer Shawn Ferris over the right field fence to double his team’s lead, putting the West ahead, 4-0.
"It was great," Borchering said after the game. "I just kind of got a good pitch and put a good swing on it. With the competition out here, it’s great to come out and have a good weekend. This is a great group of guys and it’s fun to come out and see them one more time before summer."
The West held on to the lead in the third, but it was close. With two on and two out, shortstop Nick Franklin hit a hard fly ball to center field. If it got down, it would have surely scored both runners and would have at least been a double, maybe a triple. But center fielder Chad Taylor turned his back to the infield and ran it down near the wall with a great, over-the-shoulder catch.
"The guy made a great catch," Franklin said after the game. "He had a bead on it and you can’t do anything but give him props for it."
They didn’t get any runs that inning, but continued to battle and scored three in the bottom of the fourth. With runners on the corners and one out, Blake Dieterich hit a chopper to third base. Borchering charged it and made a throw down the first base line a little bit, pulling the first baseman off the bag. He appeared to tag Dieterich on his way down the line, but the umpire called him safe. Noland Fontana followed that up with a line-drive double to the right-center gap that got the East team within a run at 4-3.
The scored three more in the bottom of the sixth. Dieterich tied the game with a bases-loaded sacrifice fly to left field and then Kyle Jackson hit an RBI single to take the lead at 5-4. Outfielder Jabari Henry smoked a groundball that hugged the third-base line, past Borchering to make it 6-4, but Jackson ended the inning after getting thrown out by the left fielder coming in to third base. In an act of unfortunate timing, Jackson was then brought to a microphone behind home plate where his principal presented him with his high school diploma.
Righthander Michael Heller came in to pitch for the West Team in the seventh inning. His fastball was mostly 88-91, though he touched 92 and 93. He also had an upper-70s breaking ball, but what stood out about Heller is how painfully slow he is to the plate. If there was ever anyone in need of a slide-step, it’s Heller. Franklin walked, stole second base easily and then stole third base standing up—it’s that slow. With the infield pulled in, Steve McGee hit a groundball past the shortstop and Franklin scored, making it 7-4. Ronnie Richardson pinch ran for McGee and he too stole second and then stole third on the next pitch. Heller moved back to the windup with Richardson on third and I was really expecting to see him break for the plate, but he didn’t. He bluffed a little bit and Heller thought better of it and switched back to the stretch.
In the top of the eighth, down 7-4, the West team had a great chance to come back. Scooter Gennett hit a ground ball to the shortstop and was frustrated, holding on to his bat and throwing it into the ground about a third of the way up the line, but he still had the speed to beat out the throw for an infield single. J.R. Murphy walked and then a wild pitch advanced the runners to second and third. Borchering was up and everyone was on the edge of their seat, but he stayed within himself and drew a walk to load the bases. Todd Haskel grounded into a fielder’s choice that scored a run, but that was all the West could muster across and they ended up losing, 7-5.
Franklin was happy with the win.
"It feels really great," he said. "Nothing but positive things came out of this. We hit well and came up clutch with men in scoring position."
East head coach David Wheeler, normally the coach at Bishop Moore High School in Orlando, echoed those thoughts.
"It feels real good," Wheeler said. "Not knowing these guys—just meeting some of them on Thursday—they play real good together. All of our pitchers threw well. They got out on us early, but we swung the bats good, we got 11 hits, so it’ll be nice to sleep in tomorrow and play the late game."