SEC standouts adjusting to unfamiliar roles with Team USA
For a pair of 20-year-olds, Vanderbilt's Ryan Flaherty and Arkansas' Logan Forsythe approach hitting with remarkable maturity.
Hitting in the lineup in front of their more heralded Team USA teammates Pedro Alvarez and Justin Smoak, both Flaherty and Forsythe speak intelligently and articulately about their approaches to hitting, and about the adjustments they have made this summer.
"With the talent on this team, our job is to see as many pitches as possible and get on base," Forsythe said. "Playing against Pedro and Smoak in the (Southeastern Conference) is tough, but having them on your team is a lot of fun. Batting one and two, we have to draw a lot of walks, try to get our hits and try to steal a couple of bags."
Although Team USA coach Mike Weathers has moved Flaherty around the lineup, Flaherty usually was hitting near the top of the order in front of Alvarez, his college teammate.
"At school I'm used to hitting behind Pedro," Flaherty said. "It's great to hit in front of the best players in the country because we just get on base and let them drive us in."Wood Work
As an Arkansas sophomore this spring, Forsythe hit .346/.431/.556, a huge improvement over the .189/.298/.322 line he posted as a freshman. Among Team USA players with at least 25 plate appearances this summer, Forsythe's .417 on-base percentage ranked second only to Alvarez. His 11 walks tied him with Alvarez for second-most on the team, and his .271 batting average and .438 slugging percentage with wood bats are solid.
"During the college season, I focused much more on staying through the ball, going the other way and working on my two-strike approach," Forsythe said. "On this team I want to continue to do those things and get to the point where I'm swinging the bat consistently with wood. It's all a learning experience, and you can learn so much from the other players on this team by learning what they're taught at their schools."
Both Flaherty and Forsythe have adjusted well to hitting with wood bats, and Flaherty in particular has shown the ability to drive the ball to the outfield. Although his .254/.308/.356 line in 59 at-bats doesn't pop off the page, there have been several instances this summer when Flaherty has smashed the ball only to have it sail right toward a defender, or have it robbed by an opponent making a running catch.
"Sometimes people without great swings get exposed with a wood bat," Flaherty said. "You have to start short with the ball because the wood bat doesn't have as much of a sweet spot compared to a metal bat. You've got to really square the ball if you want to hit it in the gap. The key for me is to take a good approach at the plate. Get your pitch and get one you can handle."
Before hitting .381/.438/.531 for Vanderbilt as a sophomore this season, Flaherty spent last summer playing in the Cape Cod League, where some of the best college pitchers in the country regularly pump fastballs above 90 mph. Hitting against pitchers from Japan and Chinese Taipei, most of whom throw in the mid-80s and rely on their secondary pitches and savvy, has been a much different experience.
In one at-bat against Japan, Flaherty got ahead in the count 2-0 on back-to-back sliders. Flaherty said he then looked for a fastball in a hitter's count, but instead he saw six more sliders and struck out on the final pitch. The different approach proved difficult for the entire team, as Team USA was just 11-5 entering the Pan American Games.
"The Cape Cod League is a lot different," Flaherty said. "The pitchers there tend to throw for the radar guns because they want to show off for the scouts. Here they switch it up and change speeds really well. They all throw at different speeds, but they all are great at knowing how to mix up their pitches."
"Looking at other pitchers in college and in the other summer leagues, you can sit on one pitch," Forsythe said. "That's not as difficult as someone who is going to pitch you backwards, especially in a hitter's count when they'll throw you a slider, and they'll throw it for strikes.
"Their windups are also different from pitchers in college. Their arm slots are different, and it throws off your timing. It's all about making adjustments, and preparing yourself when you're in the on-deck circle."Versatility On Display
In addition to being SEC players getting their first taste of the top of the lineup, Flaherty and Forsythe also have something else in common—they are both playing positions that are different from what they normally play in college.
Flaherty has moved over to second base from shortstop in deference to Long Beach State's Danny Espinosa and Oklahoma State's Jordy Mercer, while Forsythe has moved from third base to left field to accommodate Alvarez.
Both have already adjusted well to their new defensive roles, and they are the first two names mentioned by Weathers when asked who has been the most pleasant surprise so far this summer. One of the most sure-handed shortstops during the college season, Flaherty had made only one error in 16 games at second base.
Forsythe's good instincts and speed have eased his transition into the outfield, and he showed both of those qualities while making a sliding catch against the tarp in foul territory after sprinting full-speed for a foul ball against Chinese Taipei.
"It's a great experience to try out a new position," Forsythe said. "I just want to do whatever's best for the team because I know Pedro's a great third baseman. Flash is doing a great job at second base, and I'm enjoying where I'm playing, too."
—BEN BADLERAMATEUR ACTS
• Team USA lost its annual series against Japan for the first time ever on American soil. USA had won the previous 18 home series against the Japanese collegiate all-star team. After winning the series opener 7-2 on the Fourth of July, Team USA's bats went cold. Japan held USA to five runs over the next three games—all Japanese victories.
"Of course it was disappointing, absolutely, but you hope to learn from failure," Weathers said. "I think we pitched well. I think the offense has been up and down. Guys have kind of struggled with the wood bats, but part of that is the Japanese pitching was real good. They've got a couple of kids who are going to be top draft picks in the Japanese leagues next year."
Weathers said the American hitters struggled against Japanese pitching because they weren't used to seeing so much movement. Many of Japan's top arms rely on split-fingers and forkballs that dive out of the strike zone, and the U.S. hitters were too aggressive in the losses. Once Team USA began to adopt a more patient approach at the plate, it was able to salvage the series finale. Three straight USA hitters drew walks in a six-run seventh inning, and Justin Smoak worked the count to 3-1 before driving a bases-loaded double off the left-field wall. USA went on to a 7-3 victory. Next up for the Americans is a trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the Pan American Games.
• Rain spoiled the New York Collegiate Baseball League's home run derby and threatened to wash out the all-star game, but the weather cleared up in time to allow the game to start just a half hour behind schedule. Once play began, the Eastern all-stars dominated their Western counterparts 7-3. Saratoga outfielder Bryan Rose (Kentucky) captured game MVP honors for the Eastern team, going 3-for-4 with an RBI and a run scored. Rose, who redshirted his freshman year at Kentucky this spring, has been impressive in a homecoming of sorts in the NYCBL—he is from Renssalaer, N.Y. Rose was batting .301 through 76 at-bats to go along with 20 walks, tied for the league lead.
Amsterdam righthander Eric Beaulac (Le Moyne) and five other Eastern pitchers threw a scoreless inning apiece to keep the Western team off the board until the seventh. Beaulac, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, has flashed power stuff for the Dolphins, running his fastball into the 91-95 mph range. He was 1-0, 1.12 with 18 strikeouts in 16 innings this summer.
• The North topped the South 2-0 in the Valley League all-star game. Woodstock middle infielder Shayne Moody (Charlotte) drove in both runs without the benefit of a hit, and Front Royal third baseman Bennett Davis (Manatee, Fla., CC) was named MVP after going 1-for-2 with a double and a run scored. Pitching was the big story, as 23 pitchers combined to allow just seven hits while racking up 22 strikeouts. Earlier, Covington outfielder Jason Kipnis (Kentucky) won the league's home run derby.
• Derek Wiley (Belmont) hit a sixth-inning home run in the Texas Collegiate League all-star game to propel the Rogers Hornsby Division to a 3-0 victory over the Tris Speaker Division. Ten pitchers for the Hornsby Division combined to allow just three hits and two walks while striking out 11 in the game.