'Michael Jordan-type stuff': Triantos brings championship pedigree to Cubs camp

March 9th, 2022

MESA, Ariz. -- The plan was to use James Triantos as the closer for Virginia's 6A state championship game. He had pitched into the seventh inning for James Madison High School in the semifinals, and the title game was only four days later.

Mark "Pudge" Gjormand, the longtime head coach for the Vienna, Va., program, lets out a laugh now when discussing that plan. Of course, Triantos was not going to go for it. The kid was going to take the ball from the jump.

"He said, 'Coach, come on. No chance. That's my game,'" Gjormand recalled on Tuesday, still chuckling. "He's like, 'I'm starting that game.' And he goes, 'And I'm finishing that game. I've waited my whole life for that.'"

Triantos is 19 now and coming off an eye-popping pro debut in the Arizona Complex League for the Cubs, who snagged him in the second round of last summer's MLB Draft. Chicago selected Triantos less than a month removed from a title-clinching performance that will go down as the stuff of legend in Virginia high school baseball lore.

The Cubs had a pair of evaluators -- Dan Kantrovitz, the team's vice president of scouting, and Mid-Atlantic area scout Billy Swoope -- in the stands for that June 26 game against Colgan.

"It was an electric environment," Kantrovitz said.

They were there to watch Triantos, who was dealing with the pressure of scouts in the stands, a couple thousand people in attendance, the upcoming MLB Draft and the emotions of this being his final high school game.

"I was playing with my best friends for the last time," Triantos said. "I mean, I'm pitching to my best friend of 11 years. We spent basically every single day and night together. I was focusing on staying in the moment.

"There wasn't really anything that could've stopped us, in my opinion."

More to the point, it was hard to stop Triantos.

"This was Michael Jordan-type stuff," Gjormand said.

On the season for the Warhawks, all Triantos did in the batter's box was hit better than .700 with a school-record 11 homers and just two strikeouts in 75 plate appearances. As a pitcher, he was reaching 95 to 96 mph with his fastball, helping him go 9-0 with a 1.18 ERA in 47 1/3 innings.

Fresh off working 6 1/3 shutout innings in the semifinals against Lake Braddock, Triantos insisted on being the starting pitcher in the title game. And then, on the morning of the final contest, he had a bold prediction for his head coach.

"We're at a team breakfast," Gjormand said. "He looked at me and said, 'I know you were concerned about their running game, but they're not going to be able to run if they're not on base.' When he says that, he's not your typical high school kid saying that."

As the leadoff hitter in the championship, Triantos singled and scored in the first inning, then he launched a solo home run in the third to push James Madison to a 2-0 lead.

"Crushes the ball," Gjormand said. "Just crushes it."

On the mound, Triantos was backing up his pregame chatter, having sat down 18 straight batters with 10 strikeouts. With two outs to go, Gjormand realized what was happening. The kid was on the verge of a perfect game.

"He's been dominant. They haven't even sniffed him," Gjormand said. "They couldn't bunt. They can't do anything. He's locking them down. I'm thinking, 'This kid, on the biggest stage, is he really going to do this?'"

Then, Triantos left a 2-2 breaking ball up in the zone against Colgan junior Brett Renfrow, who connected and sent the pitch sailing out to center field. In that moment, the pressure of the situation could have halted Triantos' momentum and confidence.

What did Triantos do?

"There was nothing I could do but just sit there and laugh," he said.

Gjormand could not believe what he was seeing.

"He's laughing. He's literally laughing. Laughing," Gjormand said. "He looks at me and kind of waves his glove at me. I wasn't going to go out and say anything. I know how that conversation's going to go. Once he did that, I knew it was over."

Gjormand allowed himself to think ahead to the upcoming dogpile, and Triantos brought that to fruition by striking out the next two batters he faced.

"It was just, he's a special talent," Kantrovitz said. "I think that just sort of put the icing on the cake. It really sealed the deal on a pretty amazing high school career."

Between that performance and the Draft, the Cubs were able to host Triantos for a workout at their Low-A Myrtle Beach affiliate. The information collected in that session further convinced them to target the polished prep hitter.

"His swing metrics were very impressive to our scouting staff," said Justin Stone, the Cubs' director of hitting. "One of the cleanest, if not the cleanest, swing in the high school portion of the Draft. And it showed up."

Given his smaller stature, Triantos admitted being intimidated at first by the size of some of the professional ballplayers he encountered. Then, he went 0-for-9 to start off his season, hindering his confidence some out of the gates.

There was an adjustment period for him both on and off the field.

"Triantos was super shy and had to be brought out a little bit," said Rachel Folden, a Minor League hitting coach with the ACL team. "An 0-for-9 for him was like, 'Did I lose my ability to play baseball?' Because he was so successful.

"And then, he just stopped going 0-for-9."

In 25 games in the Rookie-level Complex League, Triantos hit .327 with six homers, 14 extra-base hits and a .970 OPS. That included going 12-for-20 with nine RBIs in his last five games, giving him a boost of confidence to take into the winter months.

Now, Triantos is focused on the Minor League season ahead and building toward being a part of the Cubs' future core.

"I have goals that I'm willing to do just about anything to achieve them," he said.

Triantos laughed when asked if he might approach the Cubs about pitching, too. After all, he showed how he can take a game over with a championship on the line.

"No, I don't think that they would do that for me," he said with a laugh.