Offense front and center in Game 1 of 2023 States Play Invitational

September 23rd, 2023

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Known as a pure hitter with the ability to barrel the ball to all fields, Kayson Cunningham wasted little time opening eyes on the opening night of the 2023 States Play Invitational. On a night that was infused with offense and speed, no prep star popped more than the 17-year-old from San Antonio, who compiled three hits and a pair of stolen bases for the East squad.

After pitching was largely ahead of the game during the 2022 iteration of States Play, this year’s class swung the lumber with a vengeance out of the gate, leading to a 15-10 East win at Tempe Diablo Stadium, Spring Training home to the Los Angeles Angels.

Cunningham sizzled a double to right field as the game’s leadoff batter, promptly swiping third and sauntering home on an errant throw. He ripped another single to his pull side in the second, but he muscled up for a warning track shot in the third, getting to flash his run tool as he zoomed into third with a triple.

The combination of ample scouts in attendance and unfamiliar arms on the hill usually emptying the tank in short stints can sometimes lead to hitters being overmatched, a pitfall that Cunningham says he's able to avoid through his preparation.

“Just stay me, don't try to do too much,” Cunningham said. “The stage can get big sometimes, just don't try to make it big – just be you and just stay to your routine and what you've been doing since you were younger.”

Cunningham’s father, Marco, was a 27th-round Draft selection of the Royals in 2000, making it as high as Double-A over his four years of Minor League ball. He played collegiately at Texas Tech, where Kayson is committed to attend, even as he remains one of the most heralded names in the 2025 Draft class from the high school ranks.

During Marco’s time in Lubbock, he met Olivia, Kayson’s mother, giving the Cunningham household a distinctly Red Raiders flavor.

“It gets really competitive back home,” Kayson said with a laugh about his conversations with his father. “I’ll say that I’m better than he is and he’ll [tell me] I’m not there yet. It’s good to have him in my corner at all times.”

Cunningham's hit, run and arm tool all pop, as his quick left-handed stroke is bolstered by a sound rhythm at the dish. While the homer proved elusive in his quest for the cycle, he added a steal of home to his ledger, in addition to playing both middle-infield spots. The 5-foot-9, 170-pounder has been a stalwart of the showcase circuit, in addition to being a member of the 16U/17U USA Baseball Development Program. That familiarity boosted his confidence coming into the Invitational.

“Honestly, I'm comfortable playing with some of my best friends,” Cunningham said. “I've been playing with these guys pretty much all summer and [playing on the showcase circuit] really isn’t anything new to me -- I've been doing it since I've been little and I've known these guys for a long time, so it just kind of brings a little bit of comfort.”

Here are a handful of others who stood out during Game 1 of the event:

Jarret Sabol, C (East): Only one home run was hit during States Play last year, but it took Sabol just two plate appearances before he slugged a resounding two-run homer out toward the I-10. Known as having huge pull side power, the left-handed-hitting catcher -- who is a USC commit, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Giants catcher/outfielder Blake Sabol -- ran into a middle-middle heater and didn’t miss it.

“Hopefully he throws me a fastball and I’ll take a hack -- which he did -- and I put my barrel out, stayed back, felt good and I let it go,” Sabol told MLB Network’s Sande Charles of his approach.

Omar Serna Jr., C (East): The 16-year-old backstop added a homer of his own, albeit in a more unconventional fashion. One of the premier power bats on hand in the desert, Serna, an LSU commit, walloped a ball to straightaway center in the second; he never broke stride, which allowed him to scoot around for an inside-the-park home run after there was some debate as to whether the ball had rolled out of play. He reached in all three of his plate appearances, compiling four RBIs, while also showing off his plus-plus throwing arm with a caught stealing and multiple impressive pop times although he did get banged up after taking a foul ball directly off his right biceps/elbow.

Grayson Boles, RHP (West): The uncommitted right-hander from San Diego flashed an impressive four-pitch mix across two perfect frames for the West squad. His fastball sat in the upper-80s, while he showcased both a low-80s mph slider and a mid-70s bender and impressive changeup, with the latter two offerings accounting for all three of his punchouts. He threw 17 of his 25 pitches for strikes and didn’t see the ball leave the infield.

Eli Willits, INF (West): The youngest player in attendance at States Play -- and just one of three members of the 2026 Draft class on hand -- impressed from the jump by covering a ton of ground to make a running grab in foul territory down the left-field line in the first. The 15-year-old is known to have quick hands at the dish, which aided him during his pair of triples, which combined to give him three RBIs. Eli is set to attend the University of Oklahoma, where his father, former big leaguer Reggie, is the associate head coach.