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Breakthrough Series squad rises to occasion

Program's 14-15-year-old team goes 2-2 in Perfect Game tournament
Special to MLB.com

Major League Baseball's Breakthrough Series has taken the next step. You can say it has broken through.

Competing in the Perfect Game World Wood Bat Association Freshman World Championship over the weekend in West Palm Beach, Fla., the 14-15-year-old team went 2-2 against elite-level competition.

Major League Baseball's Breakthrough Series has taken the next step. You can say it has broken through.

Competing in the Perfect Game World Wood Bat Association Freshman World Championship over the weekend in West Palm Beach, Fla., the 14-15-year-old team went 2-2 against elite-level competition.

The Breakthrough Series, established in 2008, is a joint effort on behalf of USA Baseball and Major League Baseball. This unique program focuses on developing the player on and off the field through seminars, mentorship, gameplay, scout evaluations, video coverage and the highest level of instruction, all while providing a platform for the players to perform for scouts and collegiate coaches. The events are completely cost-free, with USAB covering expenses for the players.

It's a diverse group that makes up the participants in The Breakthrough Series, according to MLB senior director of baseball development Del Matthews.

"There are kids that come up through the academy, possibly through the RBI Programs; different academies, different travel teams," Matthews said. "We have a large network of scouts and people that recommend players for the programs.

"So some of the kids come from less-fortunate situations, and with travel ball being so expensive, a program like this gives them the platform to be able to come and showcase themselves in front of scouts and college coaches."

The program has evolved from simply garnering attention for those who might not otherwise have an opportunity to play and be seen, to reaching a level of competing against the best players and teams throughout the country.

It began with three-day summer showcases that included development drills, games and practices. But, as Matthews points out, that was just a start.

"We wanted to do more," said Matthews, who manages the two MLB initiatives designed to provide professional-level instruction and exposure to diverse youth ballplayers from around the country: The Breakthrough Series and the Elite Development Invitational (EDI).

"So we talked with Perfect Game. They had a tournament and structure in place and an environment for kids that we were cultivating at that age, that were actually playing in tournaments."

Matthews said that it just made sense to create a team out of The Breakthrough Series and EDI to showcase the young players in a game-style setting and tournament play.

"Ultimately if we can get the best number of kids that we can to be on the team to play, and we showcase and we play well, then it's better for the program as a whole," he said.

After dropping the first two games, each by one run (DBacks Langley Blaze, 2-1; and Richmond Braves National, 5-4), The Breakthrough Series rallied for back-to-back shutouts (7-0 over 5 Star National Black; 3-0 over Sheets Baseball 15u).  

"There's a lot of coaches that are interested in the 2021 class," said Matthews, the son of former All-Star outfielder Gary Matthews and the brother of former All-Star outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. "This is really kind of their first look. They'll start following these kids and checking up on them, seeing how they're doing.

"So the kids that are here really get a chance to showcase in front of college coaches for the first time, and really could start the recruiting process for that student-athlete."

The Breakthrough Series provides an opportunity in a time when year-round travel-ball expense is oftentimes significant.

"The dynamics right now is it's a pay-for-play at a young age," said bench coach Jerry Manuel. "We're trying to get the kids that cannot afford to pay, say, X amount of dollars a month. We're about 70 percent single-parent homes, so to get a bat, to get a glove, is an expense that doesn't go on the priority list."

Manuel, who spent nine seasons as a Major League manager, including six with the Chicago White Sox, said he believes that in years to come that those in the program today will eventually come to realize that they were part of a groundbreaking situation.

Third baseman Eldridge Armstrong, from Pasadena, Calif., gets it already.

"It's a blessing," Armstrong said. "It's one of the greatest experiences I've ever had."

It isn't just baseball. The program also includes a very important educational aspect as well. That's where education coordinator Rocky Ghoulson comes in.

"I try to enforce to all athletes that before you are an athlete, you are a student first," said Ghoulson, who has an extensive background in education both in California public schools as well as Sylvan Learning Centers. "Without their grades, there is no athlete part."

Ghoulson said he doesn't consider himself a tutor or a teacher, but rather a farmer.

"I plant seeds that hopefully will grow and one day harvest together," he said. "I tell them that it is their job to water their seeds properly by doing the right things; paying attention to their parents, following the rules, staying out of trouble. That is watering the seeds."

Ghoulson said he also tries to give guidance in use of social media, because he knows college coaches are paying close attention to it.

"What they're checking for is your character," Ghoulson said. "They're investing in you and they're trying to decide whether they want to invest in you or the next kid."

Players were hand-selected to participate in the prestigious Perfect Game Tournament. In all, the team consisted of players from 10 states.

"My experience has been great," said shortstop/pitcher Daniel Corona Jr., who is from Brooklyn, N.Y. "I feel like we're building a great bond. We started a group chat. We're starting to be good friends."

The coaching staff is chock full of Major League experience and also includes manager Lou Collier, pitching coach Tom "Flash" Gordon, and coaches Anthony Manuel, Lenny Webster and Dmitri Young.

"We wanted to have a core group of coaches that help deliver the same message year over year," Matthews said. "Really, the genesis of it started with our relationship with the Players Association and giving former players the opportunity that want to get back into the game, whether that's coaching in high school or developing their own academy."

Catcher Andreaus Lewis, from Atlanta said he's learned some valuable lessons from the vast wealth of knowledge that makes up the coaching staff.

"Me specifically, using my legs when I'm throwing, my hand placement and my stance, and just finishing out through the ball on my back swing," said Lewis, who added that his biggest takeaway is that he's a good player who still has work to do. "If I keep working and doing the right things on and off the field, I can be successful in this game."

The team began taking shape back in Vero Beach, Fla., with the EDI program, according to Matthews.

"We had about 125 kids out there for a week," he said. "They did morning workouts, play games."

That list was narrowed down to about 40, according to Matthews. And from there, availability played a factor in coming up with the final 25.

"It's a fun process, it's the second year we've done it," Matthews said. "Everybody can't make the team, but it's been a great experience and a lot of fun to see the group come together as a team. That week we spent in Vero Beach really set the tone for this opportunity to come out here and showcase in front of college coaches and scouts to hopefully extend their baseball playing careers at the college level."

With a background in player development, Matthews recognizes the opportunity that Major League Baseball is providing through The Breakthrough Series.

"To play in a setting with coaches that have played in the Major Leagues, coaches that have been in their shoes, really gives the kids an opportunity to really feel like they have a chance to be those guys one day," said Matthews.

What are the future goals for The Breakthrough Series?

"More tournaments, more games, more kids getting into college, playing at the next level," Matthews said. "Hopefully some kids have an opportunity to get drafted. Ultimately, the more kids that we can inspire to get into college and play at the Division I level is the ultimate goal.

"Not all the kids will play at that level, but if they can develop some relationships and they're good students, develop a passion and a love for the game, then I think we're a better sport because of it."

Glenn Sattell is a contributor to MLB.com.