Aflac Players At Home On The Big Stage

SAN DIEGO—There's an old notion that a professional should act like he's been there before when he's on the field. Apparently, it applies to high school players now, too.

In the case of Sunday night's Aflac All-American High School Baseball Classic, won by the East team 5-3, virtually all of the participants had been here before. Not on the field at the Padres' Petco Park necessarily — although West shortstop Phillip Evans and first baseman/pitcher Daniel Camarena are locals who had played here with their high school teams — but a big league ballfield nonetheless.

It is the opportunity afforded elite players these days. The experience has by no means become routine. And the Aflac players still treated it with the appropriate respect. But they weren't as wide-eyed as those who have come before them.

West right-hander Robert Stephenson was the first pitcher to take the mound Sunday night. But it wasn't his first time on a big league mound. That came at Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field.

"It's still pretty cool," said Stephenson, who retired the East in order in both the first and second innings. "The mound feels great. Being the first one out there it was perfectly groomed. Nice big stadium. It was real comfortable."

That's the thing. Some of these guys are getting as comfortable on a major league mound, or in a big league batter's box, as they are at the neighborhood park where they played Little League.

West right-hander Archie Bradley, who pitched the fifth and sixth innings, was making his third appearance on a major league mound, the others coming at Texas' Rangers Ballpark in Arlington and Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium.

"It sounds weird but it kind of feels right," said Bradley, who is from Broken Arrow, Okla. "You get out there. You're on a big league mound in a big league stadium. You see all the fans. The biggest thing you have to tell yourself is to calm down. Slow the game down. It's still baseball. Just do what you know how to do."

Bradley, who possesses a fastball that climbs into the mid-90s, did what he does, striking out four of the six batters he faced (the others were retired on a groundout and a flyout).

"I just have confidence in my stuff," said Bradley, "and I'm not going to change anything just because it's an All-Star game. Go with the fastball first and the curveball next and it worked out for me.

"Hopefully, I'm just preparing myself for the future. That's where I want to be in a couple of years."

Complicating those plans is Bradley's ability on the football field. He is a two-sport star who has committed to the University of Oklahoma with aspirations of pitching for the Sooners baseball team in the spring and playing quarterback for the football team in the fall.

But if he had to choose one over the other?

"It's a tough decision, but just based on the longevity of the careers, and I guess what I'm a little better at is pitching," said Bradley. "I think of myself as a baseball player/pitcher who loves to play football. It's hard for me to choose, but if I had to pick it would be baseball."

It's good to get that settled.

Now, about Petco's reputation as a pitcher's park. Tell that to right-hander Ricky Jacquez, who pitched the fourth inning for the West. Jacquez allowed back-to-back triples to shortstop Francisco Lindor and third baseman Javier Baez leading off the inning. The spaciousness of the outfield allowed Lindor to drive a ball through the gap in left-center. Baez did likewise in right-center. One out later, East catcher Tyler Marlette didn't bother going to the gap. Marlette pounded a Jacquez pitch into the left-field seats some 375 feet away for a two-run homer that earned him MVP honors.

While this wasn't Marlette's first game at a big league park — he has also played at Tropicana and Minnesota's Metrodome — Petco did provide the backdrop for another first.

"My first pro field bomb," said Marlette, holding his award while wearing an ear-to-ear grin after the game. "It was amazing. This was probably my favorite game ever. Ever."

Marlette, from Oviedo, Fla., hit only two home runs this past season at Hagerty High. He wanted scouts to make a note of what he's accomplished since then.

"I hit 10 home runs this summer — and all with wood," said Marlette. "Hopefully, they like me now. . . . I showed I have some pop."

Marlette was surrounded by players from both teams and their coaches in front of home plate as he answered postgame questions from a television reporter. At one point, some of the players standing toward the back noticed the interview was televised live on the scoreboard beyond the left field wall. Some of them started jumping up and down, simultaneously turning to see themselves on the scoreboard. Others waved their arms as they glanced back to see themselves on the scoreboard. Kids.

They acted like they've never been on a major league scoreboard before.

NOTES

— Lindor's show of strength continued for a second straight day, giving him one of the more improbable Aflac home run derby titles.

Lindor, from Clermont, Fla., hit just one home run this season for Montverde Academy. He swatted four homers in the derby finals at Petco, however, to beat three other infielders, Huntington Beach (Calif.) Edison's Christian Lopes (two homers), Aliso Viejo (Calif.) Tustin's Travis Harrison (one) and Greensboro (N.C.) Southeast Guilford's Josh Tobias (none) for the title.

Lindor surprised everyone Saturday with four homers at the University of San Diego's Cunningham Stadium to lead the field in the first round of the derby. The homer-unfriendly Petco Park was supposed to be a bigger challenge. Apparently not. Lindor hit two balls over the 357-foot sign in left-center and deposited two more into the seats along the Western Metal Supply Co. building adjacent to the left-field foul pole.

"As soon as I hit one, I figured I would be able to hit a couple more," said Lindor. "It's a bigger field, so I knew I would have to hit it way harder today in order for it to go out."

— It was no surprise that Modesto (Calif.) Central Catholic outfielder Billy Flamion received the biggest cheer of the evening when he was announced coming to the plate in the bottom of the first inning. Flamion had virtually an entire section cheering for him.

"All my family is from San Diego, so I get to play in front of them for the first time," said Flamion, who started in right field for the West. "My mom had like eight brothers and sisters and they all have a bunch of kids. I think we have over 100 who were going to be here."

— Tobias was selected the Rawlings Defensive Player of the Game. At Saturday night's banquet, the Rawlings Gold Glove Award, given to the nation's top high school fielding prospect, went to San Juan Capistrano (Calif.) JSerra Catholic catcher Austin Hedges. The Jackie Robinson Player of the Year Award went to Johnson City (Tenn.) Science Hill left-hander Daniel Norris, who started on the mound Sunday for the East.

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