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Morris helps mold Baseball America team into winner

By Allan Simpson

JUPITER, Fla.—As the subject of one of baseball's most renowned rags-to-riches tales, Jim Morris knows something about unlikely success stories.

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays lefthander scripted another one here Oct. 30 when he returned to his coaching roots and led a team sponsored by Baseball America to the BA/Perfect Game World Wood Bat championship. BA beat pre-tournament favorite Team California 2-1 in the title game.

Morris was entrusted with a group of high school players from all over the country and in the course of four days molded it into a championship unit. The team won seven of eight games, including its last six.

"We struggled a bit our first couple of games as the kids got to know each other," Morris said, "but you could see by our third game that we were starting to jell. We knew if we just kept pulling together, we had a chance to win.

"Our pitching and defense really carried us in this tournament."

Morris took time out from consulting with the Disney Corporation on a movie based on his own life story to coach the BA team, which included several potential early-round picks in the next three drafts.

Yet the team's quest for a championship nearly ended before it really began as the BA team was seriously in danger of not advancing out of pool play after splitting its first two games and allowing eight runs. With fewest runs allowed a key tie-breaker and his team almost being forced to throw shutouts in its final two pool games, Morris got strong starting efforts from lefthander Jeremy Sowers (Ballard High, Louisville) and righthander Kevin Guyette (Chaparral High, Scottsdale, Ariz.) and narrowly qualified for bracket play as a wild-card entry.

Sowers pitched to the minimum 15 hitters in a five-inning appearance against the Miami Shark. He gave up an infield single and struck out eight before junior lefthander Scott Kazmir and senior righthander Chas Taylor completed a 5-0 win for Baseball America with a scoreless inning apiece. Guyette beat B's Baseball Academy of New York, 4-0, on a two-hitter.

Once in bracket play, BA continued to get outstanding pitching, particularly from its two Texans, Kazmir and Taylor. Kazmir (Cy Falls High, Houston) pitched Baseball America to an easy 9-0 victory over the Bill Hood (La.) Broncos, striking out 12 in six innings. Taylor (Westlake High, Austin) then blanked previously-unbeaten Team Ontario, 2-0, on a three-hitter in the quarter-finals for the team's fourth straight shutout.

BA had to rally to win its final two games but did so behind the clutch hitting of tournament MVP Billy Paganetti (Galena High, Reno, Nev.), expected to be an early first-round pick in the 2001 draft. Paganetti went 10-for-23 with six doubles and seven RBIs.

He broke a 2-2 tie in the fifth inning of a semifinal match with the East Cobb (Ga.) Astros by delivering a run-scoring single to overcome an early 2-0 East Cobb lead. BA won that game 3-2.

In the final, Baseball America pushed over the winning run in the sixth on a two-out, bases-loaded walk to outfielder Henry Gutierrez to edge Team California.

Gutierrez (Florida Air Academy) walked on a 3-2 pitch by Team California righthander Xavier Paul (Archbishop Rummel High, Slidell, La.), who came on in relief of starter Moses Kopmar (Berkeley, Calif., High) in the sixth with two runners on. Paul, one of the nation's top sophomores, walked the next two batters.

Team California took a 1-0 lead to the sixth, but Baseball America rallied on a leadoff single by Paganetti, a walk to catcher Landon Powell (Apex, N.C., High) and an RBI single by first baseman Mike Sweeney (Riverdale Baptist High, Chesapeake, Md.) to tie the game. Two outs later, Paul walked in the winning run.

Taylor, who pitched seven innings in the win against Team Ontario earlier Monday, won his second game of the day by working four scoreless innings against Team California. Kazmir came on in relief for Baseball America in the top of the seventh and struck out the side to end the game.

"This was by far one of the best coaching experiences I've ever had," said Morris, a coach at Reagan County High in Austin who in 1998 was goaded by his players into attending a Devil Rays tryout camp 10 years after ending an abbreviated professional career with the Brewers. Morris was clocked in the mid-90s and not only was signed but less than a year later the 35-year-old lefthander was pitching in big leagues.

"I may be the only guy around who's gone from a coach, to being coached, to coaching again," Morris said. "I had a great time doing this. It was fun to watch the kids get to know each other and really cheer each other on as we got deeper into the tournament. It was incredible the talent that was on this team."

In addition to Paganetti and the pitching staff, the BA team featured Powell, who gained notoriety this summer for circumventing the draft by becoming eligible as a high school junior, and outfielder Delmon Young, the top-rated player in the Class of 2003.

Delmon's older brother Dmitri, who plays with the Cincinnati Reds, assisted Morris by coaching first base.

The 50-team tournament was played at the twin spring training complexes of the Expos and Cardinals, allowing up to 12 games at one time. Ten pool winners and six wild-card teams advanced to the 16-team bracket play.

More than 1,000 high school players from all over the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico gathered at the four-day event, with several hundred scouts and college recruiters also in attendance.

With a majority of the players using wood bats in a competitive situation for the first time, pitching not surprisingly dominated the competition. There were 35 shutouts thrown in 115 games, including three 0-0 ties and four no-hitters.

Among the individual pitchers who made a big impression, besides Kazmir and Taylor, were senior righthander Kyle Davies and junior righthanders Jeremy Bonderman and Jason Neighborgall.

Davies (Stockbridge, Ga., High) was clocked at 94 mph in combining on a no-hitter in his only start for the East Cobb Astros.

Bonderman (Pasco, Wash., High), the ace pitcher on Team USA's silver-medal winning squad at the World Junior Championship this summer, was clocked at 95 mph. But he pitched in both losses by the Dallas Tigers and was knocked out early in one of the games.

Neighborgall, a 6-foot-5, 190-pounder from Riverside High in Durham, N.C., started two games and retired all 16 batters he faced for the North Carolina Warhawks, striking out 10. He was clocked at 94 mph in both outings, but had to leave his second start after four batters (all strikeouts) because of a muscle strain in his back.

In all, 21 of the nation's top 31-ranked high school juniors, as rated by Prospects Plus, participated.

Tournament Notebook

  • Nine members of the Rough Riders team were from Seminole (Fla.) High, an early favorite to be the No. 1-ranked high school team in the country next spring. Rough Riders first baseman Casey Kotchman, who was injured most of last spring after being the nation's top-ranked junior entering the 2000 season, was rated the event's top prospect for the 2001 draft. He was one of the few hitters who had no difficulty adjusting to wood bats.
  • Westminster Academy of Fort Lauderdale, the two-time Florida 2-A state champion, entered its team almost intact, picking up just three pitchers as a precaution against playing potentially eight games in four days. But Hofball—named for head coach Rich Hofman—went 2-1-1 and didn't make it out of pool play. The Wood Bat championship was the first real exposure for shortstop Bryan Bass, who transferred to Westminster Academy for his senior year from Fayette County (Ala.) high. He is the nation's top-rated high school shortstop.
  • Numerous scouting directors were in attendance, including the Braves Roy Clark and Brewers Jack Zduriencik. "This is a great event with a lot of good talent," Clark said, "but you really have to be well organized to make sure you know who is playing when and who's pitching if you want to try and see everyone." Clark had three Braves scouts with him. Zduriencik, who brought five Brewers scouts to assist him, said: "In a lot of ways this is better than a pure showcase, because you get to see pitchers pitch here. At showcase events, they just get up on the mound for two innings and try and air it out. You don't get to see pitchers pitch in that situation."

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