U.S. Junior Team Searches For Star Power

CARY, N.C.—USA Baseball’s Tournament of Stars is one of the best arenas for summer high school baseball in the country, and now that the event has a first-class venue as its new home, it is elevated to a must-attend event for players, fans, coaches and scouts.

For more than a decade, 144 of the top 18-and-under players gathered for seven days in Joplin, Mo., where eight teams vied for the tournament championship and the top 32 players were invited to tryout for a spot on the junior national team later in the summer.

Joplin’s role has changed, as it will host this year’s trials in August, opening the door for USA Baseball to unveil its new $11 million complex in suburban Raleigh.

“Joplin’s done a terrific job with this tournament for a long time, but what this means for Team USA is that it has a permanent home now,” said Victor Solis, head coach at Gateway (Ariz.) Community College and the man who will head up the junior national team this summer. “This complex is home now, and that has to make Team USA very proud.”

The tournament’s structure remains the same. American Amateur Baseball Congress, American Legion, Babe Ruth, Dixie, National Amateur Baseball Federation, PONY and Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities are the seven sanctioned organizations that pull together players from across the country, along with an at-large team sponsored by USA Baseball.

It was the at-large entry, the Stars, that walked away with the tournament title this year, as it beat AABC 8-3 in the championship game. Appropriately, 14 players off those two teams were on the initial 32-man junior national team trials roster, with the Stars boasting eight finalists.

First Of Many Steps

Since winning gold in 1995, the last time the U.S. hosted the 18-and-under event, the junior national team has won its annual international tournament only once, in 1999.

The junior team will be trimmed to 20 in August, then shove off for Ixtapa, Mexico, where it will compete in the Pan Am Junior Championships from Aug. 24-Sept. 2. The junior national team competes in two major events every other year: the Pan Am Championship and the World Junior Championship. The Pan Am Championships serve as a qualifier for the World Juniors, and Solis believes this year’s team has the speed and versatility to not only qualify for the 2008 tournament, but also to snap the lengthy gold-less streak.

“We have to qualify for the World Championships, that’s the ultimate goal,” Solis said. “But qualifying with a gold medal, I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

More than 80 percent of the players in the Tournament of Stars were rising seniors, though recent high school graduates as well as rising juniors who were under the age of 18 were also eligible. A pair of unsigned seniors, Matt Harvey (Fitch High, Groton, Conn.) and Jack McGeary (Roxbury Latin High, West Roxbury, Mass.) were eligible to participate but declined invitations, leaving Solis with a feisty, if modestly talented group of players to choose from. Solis said 78 different players were on the board as potential finalists over the course of the six-day tournament, and the final cuts were not made until the end of the championship game. Because of a relatively mediocre high school Class of 2008, as well as a rash of early-summer injuries to several top players, this year’s trials roster doesn’t have prospects with can’t-miss tags.

That could work to Team USA’s benefit.

“Versatility is paramount to any team that plans on winning a gold medal at the Pan Ams, and we think this team is well on its way to be a team of baseball players who can play different positions, play hard and know how to play the game,” Solis said.

If there's an obvious strength of the complexion of the trials roster, it's lefthanded pitching, which might also be the lone strong-suit of the high school Class of 2008 overall.

No fewer than eight lefthanders were retained among the 32-man trials roster, including rising junior Matt Purke (Klein HS, Spring, Texas) and rising senior Kyle Lobstein (Coconino, Ariz.), who were the two most impressive pitchers at the event.

Purke made two appearances, scattering four hits over 10-plus innings with 13 strikeouts and no walks for the Stars. He cruised along at 89-91 mph and showed feel and control of two secondary offerings.

There isn't a prettier delivery on the showcase and tournament circuit this summer than Lobstein's. He dealt six shutout innings with 12 strikeouts, two walks and two hits against AABC. He's poised and balanced over the rubber, landed his fastball and breaking ball where he wanted all night and was up to 90 mph in the sixth inning.

Summer Of Suffering

The biggest surprise among the omissions was Aaron Hicks, a five-tool talent from Long Beach. Hicks entered his junior season at Wilson High this spring as the No. 2 prospect in the high school Class of 2008, but he injured his throwing shoulder while pitching at a showcase in Cincinnati. He was unable to throw from the outfield or pitch in Cary, and said he would resume throwing in about a month.

While fellow Southern Californian outfielder Isaac Galloway (Los Osos High, Rancho Cucamonga) made the first cut, Hicks was just 3-for-15 with three singles and a sacrifice fly as a DH, and was named as one of 11 alternates who could be invited to Joplin after the being further evaluated this summer.

“It was tough,” Solis said of the decision to leave Hicks off. “He has a great, great reputation as a two-way player . . . That’s why he’s an alternate. He didn’t get an opportunity to throw, and obviously we have to go with what we see at the TOS. If he shows that his shoulder is healthy enough, he’ll be in Joplin.”

A broken bone in his hand left Preston Tucker in the same boat as Hicks. The rising senior led the tournament with eight hits in 13 at-bats before injuring his hand while diving back to a base. Tucker, a first baseman/outfielder from Tampa’s Plant High, showed impressive pull power in batting practice and devoured fastballs during game action. Like Hicks, he’ll be invited to Joplin if he recovers in the coming weeks.

The injury bug took a huge bite out of the pool of candidates during the tournament, as well as long before. The list of prospects in the rising senior class who have already missed time this summer because of injuries is deep and disconcerting.

Clark Murphy, a power-hitting first baseman from Fallbrook (Calif.) High, strained a muscle in his leg while running the 60-yard-dash on the second day of the event and was limited to 1-for-8 batting with five strikeouts and no walks. Another power-hitting first baseman, D.J. Hicks (Lake Brantley High, Altamonte Springs, Fla.), had mononucleosis and was unable to attend the event. Hicks batted .346 with three home runs in 26 at-bats last year for the 16-and-under youth national team, which won a gold medal at the Pan Am Championships in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, and was penciled in as a potential power bat for the junior team before the illness. “He’s virtually over it now, and is just trying to slowly work back into things,” said Dan Hicks, D.J.’s father.

Another half-dozen pitchers have come down with either sore arms or more serious arm injuries in the spring and outset of the all-important summer before their senior seasons.

  • The first pitcher to go down was Navery Moore, a righthander from Battle Ground Academy in Franklin, Tenn., who had Tommy John surgery in March.
  • Daniel Marrs was shelved with shoulder trouble. The rising senior righthander from James River High (Midlothian, Va.) was expected to miss the remainder of the summer while having physical therapy to strengthen his arm.
  • A third high school pitcher who could have contended for a spot was Daniel Webb, a righthander from Heath High in West Paducah, Ky. Webb broke a bone in his left foot during the first inning of an outing in the Kentucky quarterfinal playoffs.