EMERSON, Ga.--After winning the Perfect Game WWBA World Championship in Jupiter last October, the EvoShield Canes captured the 17U WWBA title at the LakePoint facility in Georgia while going undefeated (12-0) through the 304-team field.
The Canes boast an impressive collection of many of the top prep arms in the prep class and were carried by pitching depth and dominance. EvoShield has the only three pitchers (Mike Nikorak, Ashe Russell and Beau Burrows) who topped 95 mph at Perfect Game National, per TrackMan.
After navigating through the first four games of the playoffs, the Canes went to one of the hardest throwers in the 2015 class, righthander Burrows of Weatherford (Texas) High, to face one of the most potent and deepest lineups in the event. The Elite Squad 17U Prime has power bats Daniel Reyes, a corner outfielder who participated in the MLB Select Junior Home Run Derby, and Julian Infante, a corner infielder who hit a home run at Tournament of Stars and four at the WWBA.
The Canes jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the top half of the first inning after lefthanded-hitting outfielder Danny Blair (IMG Academy, Bradenton, Fla.) drew a leadoff walk. The strong 6-foot, 190-pound Blair put together quality at-bats with a line-drive oriented stroke atop the lineup, showing feel for the strike zone and sneaky pop. Blair is a plus runner in the 60 (6.63, 6.70 at Tournament of Stars) and his speed played at least at that level on the turf. First baseman Desmond Lindsay (Out-Of-Door Academy, Sarasota, Fla.) drove in Blair with two outs.
Two hitters later, second baseman Xavier LeGrant (Berry Academy of Tech, Charlotte, N.C.) plated Lindsay and outfielder Stephen Scott with a single on a fastball that he chopped back up the middle. LeGrant is an athletic middle infielder with natural hitting ability. He was one of the top performers with the bat at TOS and only struck out twice in 35 plate appearances in Georgia. He has a line-drive stroke and power to the gaps in game action. His defensive skill set likely fits best at second base at the next level.
“The ability to score in the first inning with the big hit from Xavier and Burrows being able to pitch out of some jams early was the difference for us,” Canes head coach Geoff Petty said. “He really settled in and was able to give us 5 2/3 innings. We weren't expecting him to give us that much so for him to be able to settle in like he did was probably the difference in the game.”
Burrows came out showing his typical plus velocity, sitting 93-95 mph in the first inning, but did not consistently leverage the ball downhill from his high three-quarters arm slot with significant tilt in the back of his delivery. He walked two of the first three hitters but the first inning ended on a 6-4-3 double play.
Burrows was tested again in the second inning with a 10-pitch at-bat after a leadoff hit, but got out of the frame without allowing a run. Three of the first six hitters he faced had plate appearances that exceeded nine pitches, finishing the second inning with 49 pitches. The Elite Squad fouled off 19 of Burrows’ 86 pitches on the day.
“I was out there and I was pretty amped up, I guess a little too amped up,” Burrows said. “I couldn’t calm myself down and I couldn’t find the zone and then in the third inning I finally--I started breathing really well--then I started hitting my spots and throwing strikes.”
In the third inning, Burrows settled in and began to find the strike zone with greater regularity, as he did not walk a hitter after the first inning. Burrows began to manage his emotions and the big stage. Before every pitch from the windup starting in the third inning, Burrows collected himself while standing on the mound before looking down for a full second and taking a big breath to initiate his delivery.
His 72-82 mph breaking ball was not at its best early, as seven of the first eight he threw (in the first four innings) didn't go for strikes.
“The first two innings my slider was kind of up and I was in and out of the zone and (then) I got dialed in and got it in there finally,” Burrows said.
His fastball primarily worked at 90-92, touching 93 the rest of the game with occasional arm-side run. Burrows’ ability to sequence came together in the fourth inning when he struck out Robert Montes. His first pitch to the righthanded hitter was a 92 mph fastball on the inner third of the plate that showed significant arm-side run. Burrows then got a swinging strike on a changeup with little fade but enough tumble to make it look like a splitter, flashing plus. Then the Texas A&M commit landed his first breaking ball for a strike since the first inning on an 80 mph breaker with downer action for a strikeout.
Burrows retired the next 14 hitters, pitching primarily off his fastball. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Burrows has wiry strength from an athletic build with broad shoulders leading to a high, trim waist. He struck out six and walked two in 5 2/3 innings, garnering eight swinging strikes. After Burrows gave up a single with two outs in the sixth, righthander Evan Sperling (Graftown High, Yorktown, Va.) entered to get out of the inning on a groundout.
The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Sperling has an extra-large frame and a strong body with long arms, offering projection. The Virginia commit is a low three-quarters slinger with a fastball that sat 87-89, touching 91 twice and 90 a few times. Sperling worked primarily to his arm side, offering some sink, arm-side run and groundball potential. He pitched heavily off of his fastball and his low-70s breaking ball was a below-average offering that was seldom used. The Elite Squad scored two runs in the bottom of the seventh before the game ended on a flyball to right field, starting a dogpile.
The Canes were carried by their pitching, with a 77-18 run differential in 12 games, giving up 1.5 runs per game with 1.09 ERA. The starting staff was superb, especially in the playoffs, striking out 9 per-seven with a 3.8 strikeout-walk ratio. In five playoff games, the Canes allowed only six runs. Two starters (Russell and righthander Cody Morris) threw complete games while two others (Burrows and lefthander Logan Allen) pitched into the sixth inning.
“You run the arms out during the week and you try not have them throw complete games unless you have to in order to keep their pitch count down and their innings down,” Petty said. “It just worked out for us when we went into the playoffs that we had all of our guys left. We still had enough and we were really fortunate. We had two big performances from Morris and Russell. When those guys throw complete games like that it keeps us from going deep into the pen like that and saves arms.”
Russell is emerging as one of the top prep arms in the class and his exploits were covered earlier this week.
Morris (Reservoir HS, Fulton, Md.) allowed two earned runs on four hits, striking out nine on 16 swinging strikes against two walks. His velocity was up from TOS, touching 94 while setting in the low-90s early in the game before settling in at 88-90, touching 91 with some sink. Morris has significant length in the back of his arm action and tends to collapse his front side, falling off to the first base side. His favored secondary offering was his low-80s changeup that garnered significant swings and misses. He offers two breaking balls that are a work in progress. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound South Carolina commit has an athletic, projectable build. Morris and Canes teammate Hunter Parsons form the foundation of what could become a strong year for Maryland prep arms.
Russell and Burrows were named co-Most Valuable Pitchers for the event, while Lindsay earned Most Valuable Player honors. He drove in the first run of the game and was a force in the middle of the Canes lineup. The strong-bodied 6-foot, 198-pound Lindsay has broad shoulders and a powerful physique. The North Carolina commit hit the most home runs on the team (three) with a line of .387/.500/.806. A righthanded hitter, Lindsay has an uphill swing and the ball jumps off his bat. He likely runs and throws well enough for an outfielder and is a bat-first player.
To advance through the playoff bracket, the position players played in five games over the course of a 27-hour stretch.
“It was hard,” Lindsay said. “We were definitely scrapping the bottom of the barrel this last game. We were a little bit dead heading into the game but that three-run first inning carried us the rest of the game.”
The Canes will travel to the 17U Perfect Game World Series next week.