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Cape Notebook: Hess-Bilous Matchup, Northern Players Build Track Record

BOURNE, Mass.–While the lore of the Cape Cod League has a special place atop the amateur baseball community, the Cape is also an important place for professional teams to scout. Each game is essentially an all-star game for the top college players, and Thursday night’s game was no different, with Coastal Carolina righthander Jason Bilous (Cotuit) matching up against Louisiana State righthander Zack Hess (Bourne).

In front of more than a hundred scouts at the National High School Invitational in March of 2016, Hess went back-and-forth against lefthander Braxton Garrett, who would go on to be the Marlins’ first-round pick that June.

At his best in high school, Hess would show a mid-90s heater and a hard slider. But questions about his ultimate role—starter or reliever—coupled with the fact that he’d be a draft-eligible sophomore in 2018, lead him to Baton Rouge, where he was dominant for the Tigers as a freshman this past spring—striking out 83 batters and posting a 3.12 ERA in 60.2 innings.

Hess made his second start of the summer on Thursday night. The 6-foot-6 righty showed many of the same delivery traits that lead evaluators to peg him as a reliever in high school. He has a deep arm swing, his back elbow is high and he has a head whack as his arm comes through.

Hess showed control of his fastball and slider early in the game, showing no fear coming inside to lefthanded hitters, or using his fastball as a chase pitch up and away. Hess worked mostly at 90-93 with his fastball. His slider often had a fastball look to it out of his hand, showing hard and late bite to induce swings and misses. He mixed in a changeup sparingly, throwing it at 85 mph.

Bilous too has a long track record of intriguing scouts, though his performance doesn’t match that of Hess. He opened eyes at the 2014 East Coast Pro Showcase, where he showed off an easy arm action as his fastball bumped 94 mph. Bilous needed Tommy John surgery that fall, and missed the spring of his senior year. Even so, the Dodgers drafted him in the 29th round in 2015 and made a run at signing him, offering him $600,000.

In his two years at Coastal Carolina, Bilous has accumulated 97.1 innings and struck out 107 batters. As a sophomore, he reached the upper 90s with his fastball, touching as high as 100 mph. But he’s also struggled to translate that power fastball into results; he has a 4.53 ERA at Coastal and he’s walked 77 batters. Those tendencies have also held on the Cape, where he’s pitched for Cotuit in each of the past two summers.

On Thursday night, however, Bilous seemed more focused on throwing strikes. His fastball worked mostly in the low 90s, with a range of 87-93 on Baseball America’s radar gun. Bilous threw a frisbee-like slider in the low 80s. He has a full arm action with length in the back and he struggled to consistently find his arm slot on Thursday. Bilous has a starter’s body with broad, sloped shoulders and an athletic look to his 6-foot-2 frame.

In many cases, the Cape Cod League is where scouts get their first looks at top college players, but the league is also full of players who scouts saw in high school, just like Hess and Bilous.

Bourne catcher Zac Susi (Connecticut) is as familiar with the players as any of the scouts behind home plate. Susi was a teammate of Bilous’ at the East Coast Pro Showcase in 2014. While trying out for that team, Susi earned the respect of scouts at the callback tryouts, when he caught in the bullpen and helped pitchers warm up even after he was out of the game.

In Thursday’s game, Susi faced Bilous and caught Chad Luensmann (Nebraska) and P.J. Poulin (UConn), all of whom tried out for the same Area Code/East Coast Pro team three years ago.

“He’s definitely a lot better now. He was unhittable tonight,” Susi said of Luensmann. “It’s good to see all their progression. I mean, they were all great in high school and they were all deserving of the honor of going and pitching for the Area Code and East Coast Pro team but it’s cool to see the improvements they’ve made.”

Luensmann has found success as a late-inning reliever in his two years at Nebraska, where he’s amassed 21 saves and pitched to a 2.55 ERA in 81.1 innings. On Thursday, Luensmann pounded the strike zone with a 91-94 mph fastball and showed feel for his changeup and sweeping 78-80 mph slider.

Poulin could be a huge piece of the puzzle for UConn in 2018. The Huskies—who also have interesting lefthanders Tim Cate and Mason Feole in the rotation—could be one of the toughest teams against lefthanded hitters next season. Poulin throws from a low arm slot and showed control of a sinking 88-90 mph fastball, along with a sharp, short breaking ball at 78-81.

“He’s always had great stuff, it’s just been the command and consistency of his stuff,” Susi said of Poulin. “This year he’s really come along since about halfway through our season (at UConn) and his confidence is through the roof. He’s not afraid to pitch with guys on base. He’s not afraid to use his offspeed down in the count. He comes right after guys—he’s not afraid of anybody and I think that’s why he’s been so great.”

Poulin threw 3.1 scoreless innings for Bourne on Thursday, bringing his ERA down to 2.07 for the summer.

Susi’s game has taken dramatic steps forward. His makeup and the limited number of Northeastern players who could catch top velocity was what earned Susi a spot on those scout teams in high school, and now he’s accustomed to catching top arms. He has a strong, durable frame with loose hips and soft hands behind the plate. His defensive ability will always be his best asset, but he does have some feel at the plate. In a left-on-left matchup in the fifth inning on Thursday, Susi, recognized the third breaking ball he saw in the count, stayed back and poked a ground ball through the right side of the infield.

• Missouri State shortstop Jeremy Eierman, who joined Bourne after spending most of his summer with Team USA, took advantage of a fastball left middle-in and hit a hard line drive over the wall in left field for a solo home run in the seventh inning. Eierman is the No. 5 prospect in the class.

• Duke outfielder Griffin Conine (Cotuit) has generated buzz this spring with his compact stroke and easy power. The son of former big leaguer Jeff Conine, the lefthanded-hitting Griffin went 1-for-4 on Thursday, making an adjustment against the lefthanded Poulin in the seventh inning to pull a curveball through the right side of the infield for a single. Conine also made a strong play in shallow right center field, sliding to rob Lyle Lin of a bloop single in the first.

Richard Palacios (Towson) knocked Bilous out of the game in the fifth inning, hitting a line drive that hopped over the wall in left field for a double. Palacios reached first base in 4.16 seconds on a ground ball later in the game.

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