ABERDEEN, Md.--In its brief, three-year existence, the Aflac All-American High School Baseball Classic has already become a must-see event on the baseball calendar, as the numerous scouts who baked in 100-degree weather can attest.
In the workouts leading up to Saturday's game, this year's crop of 38 rising seniors appeared to stack up with the prospects of the past two years. But the game reminded everyone quickly that as talented as the players are, even the most precocious high school stars are far from finished products.
In a game broadcast live across the nation on Fox Sports Net, the West outlasted the East 8-4 in a matchup that lasted nearly four hours and featured its share of brilliant moments as well as a few best suited for the sandlot.
Sixteen pitchers combined for 19 walks and three hit batsmen, and the West scored five runs in the eighth inning to seal the victory. Righthander Kyle Drabek, from The Woodlands High in suburban Houston, tossed the final two innings, striking out four and working around a pair of walks to give the West its second straight Aflac win after dropping the inaugural game in 2003.
Devin Shepherd, an outfielder from Oxnard (Calif.) High, was named MVP after he singled twice, walked twice, scored once and drove in a run. Shepherd was one of four California players in the West lineup with two hits apiece. Grant Green and Nathan Bridges--who play in the same high school conference in Orange County--were each 2-for-5 and Westlake High's Jeff Rapoport went 2-for-4 as the foursome accounted for eight of the West's nine hits.
"I don't think I deserved it tonight," Shepherd said. "There were a lot of guys that hit balls harder. It just happened that we were on the winning end and I got a couple of hits."
West lefthander Brett Anderson of Stillwater (Okla.) High surrendered a two-out RBI single to Billy Rowell in the bottom of the seventh inning to give the East its first lead. West center fielder Jared Mitchell from Westgate High in New Iberia, La., made a perfect throw to nail New Palestine (Ind.) High's Andrew Clark at third base on the play, ending the inning. The run counted but the lead was short-lived as the West rallied in the eighth, making Anderson the winner. Drabek was credited with the save.
Another bright California prospect, Fountain Valley (Calif.) High's Chris Tillman, was the steadiest West pitcher. Tillman needed just 15 pitches to retire the side in the fifth inning, working off a fastball that sat at 90 mph and a 78 mph slider that has potential to be a plus pitch.
East righthander Dellin Betances was equally impressive. The 6-foot-8, 205-pounder flashed a fastball that touched 93 during a nine-pitch, one-two-three third inning. Betances' slider was a bit tighter than even Tillman's.
East starter Matt Latos, a righthander from Coconut Creek (Fla.) High, symbolized the way some of the top prospects for the Class of 2006 struggled in spite of their obvious talent. Latos needed 60 pitches to get through the first two innings and lacked the mid-90s heat he flashed earlier in the summer, but he remains one of the top pitching prospects in the draft class.
"They're gassed," said a scout with a National League organization. "I thought the whole event was good, but the bottom line is these guys are burned out. The crop of kids they put together were without a doubt the premiere guys, we just didn't see them at their top form based on the long summer they're all wrapping up and the innings those pitchers have logged."
The defense was a similar mix of spectacular plays and unexpected gaffes. East third baseman Chris Marrero, out of Monsignor Pace High in Opa Locka, Fla., made three errors in the eighth inning, though he kept his head up after the game and said he learned from his mistakes.
"(I can't) worry about what happened, just keep moving on," said Marrero, who went 1-for-4 with a double and two RBIs. "I am going to drop balls in the future; it just happened to happen today on live TV."
Although the teams combined for seven errors, the game was not without its defensive gems. East middle infielder Ryan Jackson trumped Mitchell's pinpoint throw with a nifty catch and throw to nab Mitchell at the plate to foil a double steal in the fifth. Jackson, who has transferred to Miami's Florida Christian High for his senior year, also made a diving stab at second base to take a hit away from Huntington Beach (Calif.) High's Hank Conger in the first.
Bridges erased the fastest player in the class, outfielder Derrick Robinson from P.K. Yonge High in Gainesville, Fla., on a slow roller to third base in the bottom of the third inning. Robinson, who blazed down the first-base line in 3.8 seconds from the left side in his first at-bat, turned in a 3.96-second dash from the right side, but Bridges still got him with a strong throw on the run.
Inconsistent control, long swings and the occasional botched routine plays are indicative of high school players who were perhaps a little tired and a little tight, but no one doubts the class was full of players who will be premium picks next June.
• When many of the favorites had trouble adjusting to the pressure of performing in the home run derby, it was the little guys that shined. In Friday's qualifying round at Towson University, Torre Langley, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound catcher from Alexander High in Douglasville, Ga., led the way by clearing the short porch in left field six times, pop he had not shown regularly in batting practice. "In BP, I'm putting on a show for the scouts, trying to hit line drives," Langley said. "In the home run derby, I try to load up a little bit, get more of a leg kick."
In Saturday's finale before the game, no one could match Robbie Alcombrack of Bear River High in Grass Valley, Calif. Drabek hit the longest shot of the final round, but Alcombrack had six home runs while none of the other finalists (Langley, Drabek and Rapoport) had more than two.
"I remember last year when (Jordan) Danks won it, I said, 'Man, I'd really love to do that,' " said the 6-foot, 200-pound catcher after his victory. "Now that I did, it is shocking. I'm still a little bit shaky. It's definitely something I've been wanting to do."
• Although he went 0-for-4 with a walk, the West's Ryan Adams had some of the toughest at-bats of the day. In the second inning, he fouled off six pitches from Latos before popping out to short in a nine pitch at-bat. In leading off the eighth, the middle infielder from Jesuit High in New Orleans had an eight-pitch at-bat and drew a walk to spark the go-ahead rally. Adams, who has committed to Louisiana State, saw 29 pitches in five plate appearances.
• With the West leading 6-4 in the eighth, Shepherd sealed his MVP case by blooping a single to right off Jeremy Jeffress, a righthander from Halifax County High in South Boston, Va. "I faced (Jeffress) in my first at-bat in the scrimmage (on Thursday), and he struck me out on three pitches," Shepherd said. "I fouled one off and he blew two by me. I told him, 'When you come in,'--and I didn't know I was going to face him--'you better bring the heat.'
"I was looking dead red fastball and he threw me one on the outside and I was kind of dipping out to pull it. But it worked."
• Clark put himself in the Aflac record book by being hit by two pitches. The East first baseman also walked and scored a run.
• After putting on the most impressive batting practice displays of the week during workouts, Cody Johnson struggled during the game. The East's right fielder out of Mosley High in Lynnhaven, Fla., was 0-for-4 with four strikeouts and a walk. Johnson, who received the Jackie Robinson award as Aflac's player of the year, did come on to pitch a 1-2-3 ninth inning for the East.Contributing: Matt Meyers.