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Princeton Wins Prospect-Laden Playoff Series

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Matthew Liberatore (Photo by Cliff Welch)

PRINCETON, W. Va.—Two of the most talented clubs in the minor leagues ended their playoff series with a heavy dose of drama.

Stuck in a three-run hole before coming to bat in Game 3 of the Appalachian League’s East Division series, Princeton clawed all the way back throughout the game and finally took the lead in the bottom of the eighth after a botched throw at first base allowed the go-ahead run to come around from second base.

To get to the championship, however, the P-Rays still had to navigate the middle of Bluefield’s order, which contained an under-the-radar prospect who’d spent the whole series stinging baseballs, as well as the the 12th overall pick in this year’s draft.

With one out in the ninth, Princeton closer Francisco German fell behind Alejandro Kirk and set up a fastball count to a player who’d proved all season long that he could square up anybody’s heater.

German laid one down the middle, and Kirk sent a loud, deep drive into the West Virginia night. Nearly everybody in the stadium thought it was gone and game was tied once more. Princeton manager Danny Sheaffer was not among that group.

“No, not when it got dark,” Shaeffer said. “In the daylight, that ball’s out of here.”

Even though the ball died on the warning track, it was just another in a series of hard-struck balls Kirk put together throughout the weekend. In all, Kirk, who is listed at 5-foot-9 and 220 pounds, went 6-for-12 with two doubles and a monstrous home run off of Sunday’s Princeton starter Shane McClanahan.

“He’s a very polished hitter and he has very good plate discipline,” Blue Jays farm director Gil Kim said. “He’s got a good, short, compact stroke and he barrels the ball consistently. And that’s just on the offensive side. He calls a good game, can receive, throw, block and it’s been nice to watch him.”

Kirk’s warning-track drive was the second out, meaning all that stood between Princeton and a date in the Appalachian League Championship Series was Jordan Groshans. Bluefield’s third baseman arrived from the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League a few weeks prior and initially took some time to adjust to the higher level of competition before heating up down the stretch.

“Honestly, my first couple of games up here I saw different pitching, a different environment and a new team, and I was just trying to make a good impression and was just trying too hard to do too much,” Groshans said. “I was getting kind of big with my swing, but toward the end and into the playoffs I just told myself to relax and just go back to what I did at the beginning of the summer and have fun with it, and it paid off for me.”

Groshans struck out in this at-bat, ending the series, but he starred throughout the three-game set against a tremendous trio of Princeton pitchers. He finished the series 7-for-12, including a long home run to dead center field off of a 94 mph fastball from starter McClanahan, the No. 31 overall pick in this year’s draft.

The 18-year-old from Magnolia, Texas, worked together with his father to build his swing to be all his own. The swing is anchored around a leg kick, the timing of which he varies based on the velocity of the pitcher he’s facing. The swing itself stays on plane through the strike zone for a long time, resulting in hard line drives to all sectors.

“He’s got a level of confidence and comfort in the batter’s box and I think he carries himself with that confident swagger,” Kim said. “And he actually controls the zone pretty well. You combine natural ability, good bat path, strength, good hand-eye, the ability to control the strike zone, and he’s a pretty good hitter.”

McClanahan, for his part, showed flashes of the talent that led the Rays to select him with one of their two first-round selections this past June. The lefthander, taken out of South Florida as a draft-eligible sophomore, sat in the 92-94 mph range with his fastball but ran the pitch as high 97 mph on occasion. He complemented it with a slider and changeup that each elicited swings and misses during his three-inning outing.

Erratic command, especially early, got him into trouble, but he still showed hints of the potential he has as he goes forth in his career.

“I think it was just a combination of, probably, nerves—and I’m not saying he was nervous, I’m just saying he was amped up—and he was fired up,” Shaeffer said. “He settled down and did a nice job.”

McClanahan was the third of three first-round picks the P-Rays sent to the mound during the series. Righthander Shane Baz—acquired last month as the player to be named later in the deal that sent Chris Archer to Pittsburgh—opened things on Friday. Matthew Liberatore, the No. 16 pick in this year’s draft, took the hill Saturday and shut down Bluefield over 4.1 innings before turning things over to McClanahan in the finale.

That’s three first-rounders in three days, one of whom was acquired via trade, another drafted out of high school and another selected out of college. All of their paths crossed in Princeton, where they’ve formed one of the most potential-laden rotations in the low minors.

“I’m not sure you’ve got a better three that you can throw out there anywhere in the minor leagues, and I don’t care what level you’re talking about,” Shaeffer said. “Some of them didn’t pitch up to their capabilties, but when you’re throwing out there Baz, Liberatore and McClanahan, your club feels like it has a chance to win at any time.”

And although he went hitless on Sunday night, Princeton shortstop Wander Franco continued to show why he his rapidly rising the ranks of the most elite prospects in the sport. For the third day in a row, Franco, who is just 17 years old, took incredibly mature at-bats. Also for the third day in a row, Franco did not swing and miss at a pitch.

For the series, Franco went 5-for-13 with four RBIs, one strikeout and one walk. He also played a solid shortstop and showed leadership qualities on the field.

“I’ve been in the game 38 years and I’ve seen a whole lot of big league talent, and he definitely fits that bill,” Shaeffer said. “It’s a matter of, biologically, being 17-18 years old and you have to mature, and he will mature, but when you look at tools across the board, he’s one of the best. I think anybody that has Wander Franco on their team, has a guy with a ceiling that’s really, really high.”

Ultimately, Princeton took the series and the spot in the championship round. A few years from now, however, there’s a good chance that this weekend will stand out more as the opening act in the careers of multiple big league stars.

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