GREENSBORO, N.C.—There were plenty of big name prospects populating the rosters for the South Atlantic League's All-Star Game last night at Greensboro's NewBridge Bank Park, and they didn't disappoint when it was their turn to strut their stuff as the best the league has to offer.
The night began with the first two rounds of the Home Run Derby, which started before the game and culminated with the final round after the second inning. Among the competitors were Hagerstown's Michael Burgess (Nationals), Rome's Freddie Freeman (Braves), Charleston's Jesus Montero (Yankees) and Greensboro's Mike Stanton (Marlins), who was entered in the derby as a "wild card" despite not being chosen for the North Division's All-Star Team. Stanton leads the Sally League with 15 home runs at the break.
"It should be fun, but I ain't gonna try to do a lot," Burgess said before the derby.
Whether he really wanted to or not, Burgess did indeed put on the best show of the contest. He hit five home runs in the first round, including one that cleared the big scoreboard in right-center field, but the best was yet to come. The powerful, lefty-swinging 19-year-old cranked nine long balls in the second round, including several tape-measure shots that looked like they threatened the buildings across the street beyond the right field fence.
"I was kinda worried about (hitting balls onto the street) too, because that's a little dangerous," Burgess said after the game. "You never know, you might have an older lady driving, could cause a freak accident or something like that, so I just prayed to God nobody got hurt out there."
Listed at 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, Burgess is built like a rock and there's no doubting his power stroke, both because of the show he put on last night and because he's second in the league with 14 home runs at the break.
Burgess won the crown after hitting two more in the finals. The runner-up was the Yankees' Jesus Montero, who put on an impressive display himself in the early rounds. The righty-hitting Montero used the wind to his advantage in repeatedly sending drives out over the fence in right-center field, the deepest part of the park. Montero hit 11 home runs over the first two rounds of the competition but managed only one in the finals, which is understandable given that he had just finished catching for two innings and was then asked to come back out and finish the derby.
"I usually hit it better to right, with more power to right," Montero said through an interpreter after the game. "I can extend my arms out that way instead of turning to pull the ball and not getting as much extension."
As for the game itself, the North cruised a 13-4 victory. Asheville righthander Jhoulys Chacin (Rockies), who's been one the SAL's most dominant pitchers, started for the South. Chacin showed a fastball that was consistently at 92-93, and mixed in a changeup at 85-86 and some sharp 78-80 curveballs. The night started inauspiciously for Chacin when he committed a throwing error on a chopper hit to the left of the mound by Hickory's Jose De Los Santos (Pirates). Chacin leapt in the air, caught the ball with his bare hand and tried to spin and throw to first all in one motion, but his throw careened down the right field line and de los Santos raced into 2nd.
Chacin bounced back to strike out Lexington's Matt Cusick (Astros) on three pitches, but he then made his only other mistake when he grooved a 2-2 fastball down the middle to Hagerstown's Bill Rhinehart (Nationals), who drove it over the right-field wall to give the North a 2-0 lead. Despite the home run, Chacin's overall outing backed up the strong first half he's had, and he looked like the best pitching prospect on the field last night.
Chacin was followed on the mound in the bottom of the second by Augusta lefthander Madison Bumgarner (Giants), a North Carolina native who said he had a strong contingent of family and friends in the stands in attendance. Bumgarner, who went 6-2, 1.96 in the first half, threw 22 pitches in his inning, and all but one of them were fastballs. Even against the best the league had to offer, it was clear that Bumgarner can be successful in low Class A with just his fastball, which sat at 93-94, allowing him to simply overpower most hitters at this level.
Bumgarner began his inning by blowing away Lakewood's Michael Durant (Phillies) on three pitches, but things got much tougher against West Virginia's Jonathan Lucroy (Brewers), a mature right-handed hitter who's been extremely tough on lefties all season, having struck out only five times in 62 at-bats against southpaws. Lucroy fought Bumgarner over a 10-pitch at-bat that saw him get ahead in the count 2-0 and then 3-1 before having to foul off one Bumgarner fastball after another. Lucroy fouled off five consecutive fastballs in all before he finally squared one up and lined it up the middle, but Bumgarner snared it at about waist-level for the second out of the inning.
After his battle with Lucroy, Bumgarner gave up a single through left side to Hickory's Bobby Spain (Pirates). With his final pitch of the night, Bumgarner finally threw something other than a fastball when he snapped off a high 80 mph slider to West Virginia's Lee Haydel (Brewers), who chopped it to shortstop for a fielder's choice to end the inning. Bumgarner's outing was one of the few highlight's for the Southern squad. He was one of only two South pitchers to go a full inning without giving up a run (Charleston's Jason Stephens (Yankees) was the other) as the North scored in six of its eight at-bats on the night.
Rome's Jason Heyward (Braves) showed why he's on his way to becoming one of the best prospects in baseball as well. Heyward hit a home run to right field on the first pitch he saw from Greensboro righthander Andrew Battisto (Marlins) to get the South on the board in the second. In the fourth, Heyward beat out an infield single after hitting a soft line drive that dropped in front of West Virginia shortstop Zelous Wheeler (Brewers). Heyward's lone miscue of the night came in the bottom of the third, when he misplayed a fly ball hit towards the right field corner by Lexington's Matt Cusick (Astros) which helped propel the North to a two-run inning and a 4-2 lead.
The most impressive arm from the Northern side was Lake County lefthander Kelvin De La Cruz (Indians), who leads the SAL in ERA at the break with a mark of 1.60. De La Cruz didn't feature an overpowering fastball, which sat between 88 and 91, but he mixed in a nice curveball and a changeup that came in at 79 mph, making sure to stay away from hitters and hitting his spots on the outside corner.
De La Cruz struck out Asheville's power-hitting outfielder Brian Rike (Rockies) to start his outing, getting Rike to chase a curveball in the dirt for strike three. After an Everth Cabrera (Rockies) groundout, de la Cruz gave up a double off the right field wall to Michael Mitchell (Rockies) when he left a 3-2 fastball up and out over plate, followed by an RBI-single by Greenville's Michael Jones (Red Sox) before getting out of the inning.
The North continued tacking on runs in the middle innings, adding two more in the fourth and three in the fifth, after which the score was 9-3. Hagerstown's Bill Rhinehart took home MVP honors. After his home run off Chacin in the first, Rhinehart added two more hits, including an RBI single in the third, to complete a 3-for-3 outing.
Lakewood righthander Drew Naylor (Phillies) was named the most outstanding pitcher of the night. Naylor leads the SAL in strikeouts with 91 in 87 1/3 innings on the season, and he's doing it despite not having an overpowering fastball, which ranged from 88-91 last night.
Naylor's out pitch is his big breaking curveball, which came in at 72 mph last night, that he uses to keep hitters off balance. He mixes in a changeup that came in at 80 mph as well. Naylor was one of the few pitchers to throw a 1-2-3 inning. Even though a few curveballs got away from him, staying up and in to the three righthanded hitters he faced, he was able to get a few swings and misses as he retired Lake County's Roman Pena (Indians) on a grounder to third, followed by strikeouts of Savannah's Francisco Pena (Mets) and Greenville's Yamaico Navarro (Red Sox), both of whom whiffed at inside fastballs for strike three.
Not every prospect had a great night. South shortstop Yamaico Navarro had a forgettable evening, going 0-for-4 with four strikeouts and committing a throwing error, but most of the big names came out looking quite good. Heyward, Burgess, Montero and Chacin, among others, all backed up the praise they've received over the first half of the 2008 season. While you can't make definitive judgements about anyone based on one game, it was encouraging to see in person such a collection of prospects performing well.