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PDP League title game features prime-time talent

@JonathanMayo
July 3, 2019

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Prospect Development Pipeline’s primary focus, as its name suggests, is to help high school players improve over the time they are together, working with former big leaguers and coaches. There are, of course, goals in play, from evaluating players for potential inclusion on USA Baseball’s 18

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Prospect Development Pipeline’s primary focus, as its name suggests, is to help high school players improve over the time they are together, working with former big leaguers and coaches. There are, of course, goals in play, from evaluating players for potential inclusion on USA Baseball’s 18 and under national team to evaluating players (by scouts) for the 2020 Draft.

Down on the priority list is winning. But put a bunch of elite-level players together on a field in a league that’s keeping stats and standings, and the competitive nature is sure to come out. There is no question that Team Larkin and Team Howard, the two teams that will square off in the PDP League championship game on Thursday, are excited about playing for any kind of title.

“We’re definitely fired up about it,” outfielder/left-handed pitcher Robert Hassell III (Independence, Tenn.), who plays for Team Larkin, said. “That’s what we want to do. That’s what I like about our team. We’re not focused on individual performances. We’re behind each other. That’s how every team is, I guess.

“Our team, we’ve been having fun, trying to come out here and kill the opponent. We’ve been pretty successful doing that thus far and focused on the championship game and when we get there, we’re going to be focused on winning it.”

Hassell is a big reason why Team Larkin went 5-3, good enough to advance to the title game. He’s tossed four innings, allowing just one unearned run on three hits and no walks while striking out five. But it’s really the Vanderbilt recruit’s bat that has stood out. After his 1-for-2 showing on Wednesday, the Tennessee native is hitting .409 with a 1.182 OPS. He’s banged out a homer and three doubles while driving in six, tied for the most in the league.

“I’m keeping it simple, not trying to do too much,” Hassell said. “These guys are throwing really hard, so I’m not going up there with the mentality of, ‘I want to try to hit a home run.’ I just want to barrel the ball up, and if they’re throwing 90-plus, the ball’s going to come off with some velocity. Just worrying about keeping the barrel on the ball and not striking out, putting it in play. That’s how you give yourself the best opportunity.”

That can be easier said than done, especially for a young hitter. And Hassell admits to falling into the trap of trying to do too much. But he actually has taken a lesson from one of the team captains who came to spend time with the players, Chipper Jones, and executed it well in the box.

“Not every time, but there are times I’ve gone through little slumps and I think about what I’m doing wrong and that’s where I try to kill the ball,” Hassell said. “Chipper came in and said some good things. One thing I took away from what he was saying is that he swung 70-75 percent every swing.

“What he was meaning by that is he tried to barrel the ball up as much as he could and swinging 100 percent didn’t do it for him. That’s what I took from that, that’s what I’ve been trying to do and I think it’s been working for me.”

Other standouts

*Jack Bulger (Dematha, Md.) has stood out for most of the PDP League at the plate, showing excellent bat speed en route to hitting .316 with a double and a triple to go along with three RBIs. On Wednesday, however, he showed off some skills behind the dish, throwing out four potential basestealers. His best pop time was 2.03 seconds.

“I’ve actually been struggling throwing,” Bulger said. “I feel like guys have gotten pretty good jumps. Today, my arm felt really good, my throws had carry and my fielders came through for me putting good tags down.”

Bulger, who has also seen time in left field and first base here, actually played more third than anything for his high school team back home. So he had to cram a bit to try to get up to speed to be here, literally.

“I came here a little rough catching-wise,” Bulger said. “At home, I had to get on the machine and ramp that thing up and get ready for all these 95-mph arms. Once you get adjusted, right now I feel pretty good, but the first few weeks, it’s all about getting adjusted to the velo. It is pretty hard.”

*Enrique Bradfield (American Heritage Plantation, Fla.) is the fastest player here, and he has three stolen bases to show for it. On Wednesday, he turned in the first three-hit performance in the league, including a beautiful bunt base hit and a triple. He now leads the league with 11 hits and has a .379 average.

*AJ Vukovich (East Troy, Wis.) had the power stroke going on Wednesday. Hitting cleanup for Team Jeter, the Louisville commit hit a grand slam in the first inning of his game, coming off the bat just over 102 mph. He followed that up with a triple to left-center in the third that registered an exit velocity of 108 mph.

*Milan Tolentino (Santa Margarita Catholic, Calif.) had been scuffling a bit coming into Wednesday, but had himself a 2-for-3 day, singling in the first and scoring and then hitting a solo home run to right coming off the bat at 96 mph.

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.