Some well-known prospects for next year’s draft, such as Jacob Gatewood of Clovis, stood out on Thursday in Stockton, but there were some surprises as well.
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Nearly 100 players took the field Thursday at Banner Island Ballpark in Stockton to tryout for the Oakland Athletics Area Code team that will compete at the New Balance Area Code Baseball Games from August 5-10 at Blair Field in Long Beach.
Opening the day was the 60-yard dash but with no official timing being allowed. Still, one of the faster times ran was by Matt Toscano from CIF Central Coast Section Division II champion Willow Glen of San Jose, who was clocked unofficially in 6.7 seconds on several stopwatches.
After a variety of throwing and fielding drills, the ball began to leave the ballpark as the hitters entered the cage for batting practice. They put on a display as the ball quickly and often found its way over the outfield fences.
Christian Funk from Clovis West of Fresno kicked off the long ball launching as he smashed two home runs out of the yard, including one that went over the back porch in right. Among those to also go deep and look impressive during their swings were Korby Batesole (Buchanan, Clovis); Blake Billinger (St. Francis, Mountain View); Brandan Langan (Sheldon, Sacramento); Shea Sbranti (Freedom, Oakley) and Casey Soltis (Granada, Livermore).
No stranger to the Area Code tryout process was Jacob Gatewood from Clovis. The USC-committed sleek and smooth 6-foot-5 shortstop put on a show during his batting practice session as he launched a home run that cleared the bullpens in left center on the fly. Not only did he make the A’s team last season but he hit a home run during the Area Code Games itself last season that went down the left field line over 400 feet for a home run that has become popular highlight video on youtube. He also showed a good arm during drills earlier in the day.
Once batting practice ended and the games got underway, the ball started to get hit much less as the pitchers had their way.
For the many pro scouts and college coaches in attendance, their focus was on radar guns, pitch movement and quality swings. For those of us from Cal-Hi Sports, however, it also was hard not to get excited when a top player from a top program such as Serra of San Mateo or St. Mary’s of Stockton came up to bat against a pitcher from Clovis North.
Mitch Hart from Granite Bay hit 92 mph with his fastball during his perfect inning on the mound while Cameron Avila-Leeper from Grant of Sacramento and Matt Ladrech from Campolindo of Moraga also were among the pitchers to throw perfect innings.
Coming from a school known for football and not so much in baseball, Avila-Leeper, a 5-11, 150-pound left hander, wasn’t lighting up the radar gun but had impressive movement on the ball as he got a strike out and two ground outs.
“I just attacked the strike zone and went after the batters and made them hit the ball,” said Avila-Leeper after his inning of work. “You can see all the (radar) guns pop up and you just try your best. I don’t let the pressure get to me.”
When asked what he was throwing he said “fastball, curveball, changeup and a little spike knuckle curve.”
One player that impressed both at the plate and on the mound was Sean Watkins from Serra of San Mateo. After initially catching our eye during batting practice as he hit the ball with power to left and right-center, he took the mound despite being listed as a shortstop.
Once on the mound, the 5-foot-10 senior to be bounced back from walking the first batter to strike out the next three he faced while reaching 88 mph. He then took his turn at bat and the first pitch he saw hit him square in the back for a hit by pitch.
With someone else taking his spot on the bases, he was allowed to come back to the plate a few batters later and got a bit of revenge as he lined a shot past the pitcher and into centerfield for an RBI single.
“I was just trying to have fun out there playing against some of the top competition in Northern California,” said a soaked with sweat Watkins after the first game. “I was throwing fastballs to get loose. Then I got settled and had good command of my off speed, slider and curve ball.”
Local rivals with a local connection
Two of the players in attendance didn’t have a long drive to make as Jed Sprague from St. Mary’s of Stockton and Nate Verlin from Lincoln of Stockton were the only two from Stockton schools to tryout.
Jed’s father is Ed Sprague Jr., who won two World Series championships back in 1992 and 1993 while with the Toronto Blue Jays and is currently the head coach of the University of the Pacific baseball team in Stockton.
Nate’s dad, Ron Verlin, also works at nearby Pacific as he was recently named the head basketball coach at the school after 19 years as an assistant to legendary head coach Bob Thomason.
Both players had impressive swings during batting practice while Nate was able to have the most impressive swing out of the two as he hit a ball for a home run.
While coaches from UCLA were able to be there for the tryouts just two nights after the Bruins won the NCAA championship in Nebraska, one player that wasn’t able to make it was Neil Sterling from Serra of San Mateo as he was stuck in Omaha after his flight was cancelled after watching the College World Series.
Cal-Hi Sports Mr. Baseball Player of the Year finalist Jack Labosky from Clovis North of Fresno was on hand after recently committing to Duke. He hit mid the 80s for velocity but didn’t seem to have his best stuff. Labosky also played third base.
The CIF Central Section also was represented by many others who stood out, such as pitcher Jack Wheeless from Buchanan of Clovis and 6-foot-9 pitcher Stetson Woods from Liberty of Madera Ranchos.