On a humid, rainy September morning in Ciego de Avila, Cuba, 18 teenagers filled a bus and set off for Sancti Springs, about 90 minutes away. There, the U.S. junior national team was scheduled to meet the host country in an elimination game of the 2006 World Junior Championship, as the Americans had drawn the event’s No. 1 seed and perennial international baseball leviathan.
|2002||Delmon Young, of, Camarillo, Calif.|
|2003||Nick Adenhart, rhp, Williamsport, Md|
|2004||Cameron Maybin, of, Asheville, N.C.|
|2005||Robert Stock, c/rhp, Westlake Village, Calif.|
When the team finally arrived at Huelga Stadium, it discovered the showdown with Cuba was delayed, and it would have to kill the next six hours waiting out the rain. It was too far for the round-trip back to the team hotel, so the team spent most of the delay napping on the bus, doing anything to try to quell the tension.
Such circumstances might unravel most players, even professionals, much less a 17-year-old. But Blake Beavan wasn’t fretting.
The Americans’ scheduled starting pitcher, Beavan assessed the situation, casually put his arm around his coach and said simply, “Gosh, I hope we play today.”
“Usually when a pitcher is out of his element and routine, he’ll want to postpone it, but he said it with complete sincerity,” said U.S. coach Jason Hisey, a pitching coach at Pima (Ariz.) Community College. “From the moment we stepped on the field, he was ready to pitch. He was completely locked in.”
Beavan struck out 11 in a complete game shutout, scattering seven hits and a walk as Team USA beat Cuba 4-0. Beavan called the game “one of the best experiences of my life,” and although the U.S. eventually settled for a silver medal, Beavan permanently etched his name into international baseball lore and, in the process, sewed up Baseball America’s 2006 Youth Player of the Year award.
A sidearming righthander from Irving, Texas, Beavan is as garrulous off the mound as he is brash on it. He was known as well for his swagger as his stuff as an underclassman at Irving High, where finger-pointing and taunting of opposing hitters accompanied many of his strikeouts. He was once ejected from a game as a junior after a spicy shouting match with opposing fans.
Beavan’s reputation preceded him, and Team USA’s coaches were wary of his makeup when they invited him to trials. What they had to decide before picking him for the team was whether Beavan had grown out of his antics, and if he could hold up under the pressure of pitching for his country.
“I would call it eccentric,” Hisey said of Beavan’s personality. “He kind of comes off as a surfer kind of guy, real carefree. But once we saw a little about his character, poise and competitiveness, it became obvious that he was the guy we wanted with the ball against Cuba.
“The thing about Blake that separates him from guys his age is that he’s very comfortable with who he is. There’s no situation that’s bigger than him.”
Beavan backed up that statement many times over this summer, and especially against Cuba. In the fifth inning, just as Cuba had done in almost all of its games during pool play, its pitcher threw at a U.S. hitter, plunking him with a first-pitch fastball, just to send a message. In the bottom of the inning Cuba’s best player, third baseman Dayan Viciedo, came up, and without hesitation Beavan zoomed a fastball over his head, providing a not-so-subtle response that the Americans had no intention of backing down.
The hometown fans roared as Viciedo and Beavan glared each other down. The homeplate umpire warned both benches, and Beavan climbed back atop the mound. “The next three pitches, Blake threw three fastballs on the inside half to the best hitter at that age group in the world, knowing he can’t afford to hit him, and he struck him out,” Hisey said. “The margin for error (Beavan) had the whole game was so small and he continually made pitches within that margin for error.
“It’s the single most impressive pitching performance I’ve ever seen in person.”
Beavan’s performance in Cuba punctuated an outstanding summer. He was the ace of the Dallas Tigers travel club, and compiled a 9-1, 1.71 record with more than a strikeout per inning pitched, leading the Tigers to a Connie Mack League regional final bid.
He was dominant at several national showcases, fortifying his reputation as Texas’ top amateur prospect for the 2007 draft and a possible first-round pick. He made a brief stop in Long Beach for an outing at the Area Code Games, an event dominated by many of the top high school hitters in the country. The bats went quiet for three innings when Beavan struck out five of the nine batters he faced. It was his final tuneup for the Aflac All-American game a few days later in San Diego, which was yet another successful showing, this time on television.
Beavan needed just 14 pitches–10 strikes–to retire the top of the East batting order, with bookend strikeouts of Justin Jackson (Roberson High, Asheville, N.C.) and Jason Heyward (Henry County High, McDonough, Ga.), both of whom were finalists for the Youth Player of the Year award. His fastball sat between 90-94 mph to go along with an 83-84 mph slider.
Beavan joins Robert Stock (2005), Cameron Maybin (2004), Nick Adenhart (2003) and Delmon Young (2002) as Youth award winners, and has the resume that suggests he’ll follow in their successful footsteps.