Hitting The Homestretch

SAN DIEGO–As the 21st annual Area Code Games began to wind down, many of the scouts and a some of the top players headed a couple of hours south to San Diego, where Wednesday preparation for Saturday’s Aflac Classic began.

After a lackluster showing Sunday in Long Beach, the West Coast’s most talented rising senior, Aaron Hicks (Wilson High, Long Beach), put together better plate appearances Monday before coming full circle Tuesday. He scorched a triple that one-hopped the wall in the right-field corner from the left side, then laced a line-drive to left field for a sacrifice fly in his next at-bat. A switch-hitter with a 70 arm on the 20-80 scouting scale and 6.7-second speed in the 60-yard dash, Hicks’ upside is obvious, and with the patience and pitch selection he displayed Monday and Tuesday, he might have solidified his spot as the No. 1 position player at the showcase, despite the fact he departed, along with 11 other Aflac all-Americans, for San Diego midway through the event.

Because of that arm strength, Hicks has been clocked as high as 93 mph off the mound, and he has a hellacious 82 mph power breaking ball to boot. He came up with a sore shoulder earlier this summer, but has been throwing bullpen sessions, including a 20-pitch one Tuesday at Blair Field, and also tossed an inning Thursday at the University of San Diego during a seven-inning Aflac scrimmage.

“It feels good,” Hicks said a few moments after his bullpen session Tuesday. “I’ve been exercising, throwing on the side and doing Jaeger bands.”

True to his word, Hicks was throwing effortlessly from the mound as well as the outfield, and appears to have recovered from his early-summer ailment. He’s penciled in to pitch at least one inning in Saturday’s game at San Diego State, which would be his first game action since he left a June 16th outing holding his shoulder at a showcase in Cincinnati.

He was one of a handful of underclassmen at the 2006 Area Code Games to etch a spot in the memory banks of scouts in attendance, despite the fact they’d have to wait a year to get their hands on him. Hicks, Robbie Grossman (Cy-Fair High, Cypress, Texas), Jordan Cooper (Shawnee Heights High, Tecumseh, Kan.) and Isaac Galloway were the consensus top rising juniors here a year ago, and they were all back for a sequel in ’07, except Hicks’ fellow-Southern California phenom, Galloway.

The rangy, athletic outfielder from Los Osos High in Rancho Cucamonga injured his ankle in July, and sat out the Area Code Games.

He was in attendance at the Aflac scrimmage, however, and was running without much noticeable impediment.

The news on Kyle Long wasn’t as good. The outfielder/lefthander from Saint Anne’s-Belfield High (Charlottesville, Va.) was diagnosed with tendonitis in both of his triceps, and was not expected to make the trip to San Diego for the Aflac game as he recovers from the injury and prepares for his senior football season.

“The doctors have told him to take a couple of weeks off, but the reports on his overall health are better than we could have ever hoped for,” said Saint Anne’s-Belfield coach Eric McGrane, who also said that Long would miss the Aflac Classic, but was planning on playing football in the fall and was expected to be ready for baseball season.

The son of NFL Hall of Famer Howie, Kyle Long is a physical marvel and a nationally ranked football recruit who has committed to play baseball at Florida State. Part of his workout regimen included 300-pound hangcling lifts.

Harold Martinez, meanwhile, spent more than a day in the hospital when he came down with food poisoning upon returning from the Baseball Factory Cape Cod Classic. The infielder from Miami’s Braddock High was in uniform and in good spirits for Thursday’s scrimmage, however, despite missing last week’s East Coast Showcase in Lakeland, Fla.

Walker Kelly entered the summer with hopes of establishing himself as the best prep pitching prospect in the state of Texas, but after a strong start, he came down with a sore arm, and was shut down for the remainder of the summer. The lefthander from Arlington Heights High (Fort Worth) is in attendance this weekend in San Diego, but will be unable to pitch for the West team.

• Had the Aflac East roster been picked based on his performance at the World Wood Bat Association 17-Under tournament last month in suburban Atlanta, righthander Mac Williamson would have been a lock. He was brilliant in that event, touching 94 mph with his fastball and pitching with poise and command. His velocity fell precipitously in subsequent outings, and the rising senior from Wake Forest-Rolesville High (Wake Forest, N.C.) was diagnosed with shoulder tendonitis this week. He has already committed to Wake Forest (which is located in Winston-Salem, not his hometown of Wake Forest, about two hours east of the school’s campus), and will take the next couple of months off before resuming a throwing program in the fall. “We hope to be back by October, but the important thing is that there is no serious injury,” said Mac’s mother, Cathy.

• Injuries are hopefully a thing of the past for Wednesday’s best pitching prospect at the Area Code Games. Righty Miles Regan was unable to take his regular turn in El Capitan High’s (Lakeside, Calif.) rotation because of a sore arm, but when he completed his outing Wednesday night at Blair Field, he walked off the mound with the designation of one of the event’s best pitchers. “It felt great,” he said after dialing his fastball up to 93 mph. Regan has not committed to a college, but has a three-pitch mix and a lightning-quick arm that makes for an intriguing combination that could draw consideration in the top three rounds of next year’s draft if he maintains his health and learns to command the zone more effectively.

• The position player to take the biggest leap forward this week in Long Beach? You’d be hard pressed to argue against Niko Vasquez for that honor, though outfielder Conner Mach (Ballwin, Mo.) also put his name on the map. A rising senior shortstop from Las Vegas’ Durango High, Vasquez has been as much of a mainstay on the showcase circuit over the past three summers as sunscreen, but it wasn’t until this week that he began to turn his tools into performance. He had an afternoon to remember Wednesday by blistering a pair of pitches to left field, homering and tripling off low-90s heat. He’s got good hands, nice actions, bat speed, and now, some track record of performance to build on.