7A-13 District Tournament Preview
Host: Royal Palm Beach
Monday, April 20th
7:00 PM: Games at home fields
(7) Lake Worth at (2) Dwyer
(6) Olympic Heights at (3) Royal Palm Beach
(5) West Boca at (4) Atlantic at Little Fenway
Wednesday, April 22nd
4:00 PM: TBD
7:00 PM: TBD vs. (1) Forest Hill
Thursday, April 23rd
7:00 PM: Semifinal winners
Overview – With plenty of drama and lead changes, the race for the top seed in 7A-13 has been entertaining from start to finish. Although Forest Hill came out on top, there is no clear favorite now that the playoffs are here. Every team has a shot, no matter how long it may be, and most of them match up very well. They all took turns beating each other up throughout the season, resulting in some deceivingly-deflated win totals. Don’t be fooled by that. These teams can all play, and most specialize in pitching. The district is home to some of the best hurlers in the county so expect to see some low-scoring affairs.
1. Forest Hill – After finishing with an 8-4 record in 7A-13 and earning the top seed in perhaps the most hotly contested district in Palm Beach County, it is safe to say that the mission has been accomplished.
“We’re getting into it this year with the attitude that we’re going in to scare the big guys,” Falcons’ Assistant Manager Johnny Perez said back in early February, when his team was preparing for the 2015 season.
The Falcons utilized a young squad that garnered valuable experience throughout a 6-19 2014 campaign to propel themselves into contention this year. They beat each of their district rivals at least once in the regular season, proving that they are capable of getting past whoever they draw after their hard-earned, first-round bye.
Forest Hill owes much of its 2015 success to balanced play on the field. The team did not excel in any one phase of the game but instead performed solidly and consistently in all of them.
Coming into the season, the team had a plethora of arms at its disposal and it believed pitching would be a strength. It was. Four different pitchers tossed at least 20 innings for the club and each of them posted a sub-3.00 ERA. Leading the way was Hector Perdigon who allowed 19 runs, only 10 of them earned, in 41.1 innings pitched. Juan Iglesias, Brad Hammel and Mike Entenza were all nearly as good as the staff ace though, and such depth will undoubtedly give the Falcons an advantage with the grueling tournament schedule.
Led by Manny Bejerano and Kylan Barnett, the Falcons hit .285 as a team, good enough to lead the district. However, 7A-13 is loaded with quality pitchers and, depending on which team they run into, runs can come at a premium. The team also boasts a .379 on base percentage, which is good considering how daring, and successful, they are on the base paths. They where caught on just four of their 68 base-stealing attempts.
The Falcons should also benefit from an extreme case of confidence. Going into the final week of the season, they were riding a six-game winning streak in which they downed four of their district foes.
If it continues to peak at the right time, fire on all cylinders and maintain composure as the stakes are heightened, Forest Hill should be a tough out for whoever it runs up against.
2. Dwyer –The Panthers led 7A-13 with the most sweeps of district rivals, defeating Atlantic, Olympic Heights and Lake Worth twice each. The problem is that they were swept by Forest Hill, dropping them into the two seed despite an equal 8-4 district mark. As a result, they have a first-round rematch against Lake Worth, a team that gave them a run for their money in the opening game of last year’s tournament.
Despite the so-so start to the 2014 tournament, the Panthers went on to place second in the district. They fell victim to the upstart Atlantic Eagles in the finals, but eventually got the better of them in the regional tournament before falling to American and missing out on a trip to jetBlue Park by just two runs.
The Panthers suffered the loss of some offensive fire power from last season’s team but still have the tools to make a deep run. The best of those tools reside on the team’s pitching staff, where Thomas Szapucki and Colton Rendon combine for arguably the districts best one-two punch. Like Tristan McKenzie of Royal Palm, Szapucki’s name is spoken among opposing hitters the way Keyser Soze’s is among the criminal underworld. If Szapucki is Soze, “Chief” Rendon is Vebal Kent, an unassuming force that does not get enough credit for his brilliance. Last season, Rendon defeated McKenzie and Royal Palm in the second round of the tournament by hurling a complete-game shutout.
As if those two were not enough for opponents to deal with, the Panthers have a bevy of other arms to back them up. Hunter Whitman is the third starter and also found playoff glory last season by defeating Atlantic in the regional semifinals. Behind him are Shane Roberts, Tyler Ahearn and Evan Richardson. Roberts fanned 24 batters in just over 13 innings, while the other two are more than capable of keeping teams off the scoreboard.
Dwyer batted just .240 and scored 84 runs on the season and that can pose problems in a pitching-centric district. If the Panthers are going to challenge for the title, they are going to have to find away to get on base and score some runs.
“We have to get more than a couple of runs,” said Manager Frank Torre, after a narrow 2-1 victory over West Boca earlier in the season. “Our pitching’s going to be good. We just have to find a way to string more hits together.”
Catcher Dylan Jones echoed that sentiment after a one-run loss to Forest Hill.
“Great job off the mound by Colton Rendon,” said Jones. “We just didn’t pick him up. It was a great outing for him. One run isn’t enough to win a game.”
In truth, one run is enough to win a game. As long as it is one more than the other team. Lucky for the Panthers, they have the kind of pitching staff that is capable of making sure those two things are one in the same.
3. Royal Palm Beach – Not too long ago, 7A-13 was the Wildcats for the taking. On March 28th, after beating Lake Worth, they owned a 11-7 overall record with a 6-3 district mark and were sitting in first place. An ensuing four-game skid, including district losses to West Boca and Forest Hill, dropped them into the third seed though, giving them a first-round contest against Olympic Heights, who they split the regular season series with.
That match-up should bode well for the Wildcats. Hitting has been a trouble spot for the team this season but an Olympic Heights’ rotation that has been depleted by injuries in the later part of the season could be just what the doctor ordered for the Royal Palm offense. Brandon Hernandez is the club’s best hitter, raking at an extraordinary .431 clip, but no other member of the starting nine is approaching .300. To get past a scrappy Lions club, the Wildcats will have to fight fire with fire and find ways to get on base and manufacture runs.
“We’ve always played close games, we just can’t get the big hits when we need them,” Kason Gabbard, the team’s first-year manager, said earlier in the year about his kids’ offensive woes. “We’re struggling big time right now at the plate. We just can’t seem to do all the little things right.”
What it lacks on offense, the team makes up for on defense and pitching. The defense held opponents to just 54 runs in the regular season, while committing 29 errors and turning 16 double plays, all of which rank among the best in the district. Much of that success starts with star pitcher Tristan McKenzie, whose name is spoken with fear among opposing players and coaches in 7A-13. The senior righty has tossed 91 strikeouts this year while posting five wins, a 0.69 ERA and 0.63 WHIP.
Whichever team does not have to face McKenzie will instead bump up against one of a pair of other fine pitchers on the Wildcats staff. Neither Nick Fernandez or Zach Retzler have the pure power or strikeout potential as McKenzie, but both can prevent runs and get outs, as evidenced by their 1.04 and 0.66 ERAs.
If the lineup can provide some aggressive and timely hitting to scrape across some run support for their pitchers, the Wildcats can become the wildcard in the hunt for the 7A-13 crown. They have proven throughout the season they have the talent to play with any team in the district and if they can find some balance they are as dangerous as they come.
4. Atlantic – Last season, the Atlantic Eagles pulled of the greatest upset in the Palm Beach County playoffs. After posting a less than stellar 14-15-1 record, they bounced the 21-1 West Boca Bulls from the tournament in the semifinals and went on two win the district for the second time in three years. This season, fans of each team won’t have to wait for the rematch, as the two are slated to square off in the first round.
Once again, the Eagles are flying under the radar as an up-and-down regular season has them flirting with .500 near seasons end. However, Manager Steve Wilson always seems to have his team primed and ready to go when the playoffs roll around. Opening up against their arch-nemesis, who they defeated twice in the regular season, should only serve to fuel the fire.
The Atlantic lineup is long and dangerous, and the top of the order excels at setting the table for the middle. Then, to make things worse for their opponents, the bottom of the order resets it for the top. As a result, they have the district’s most potent offense, pushing across 113 runs in the regular season.
On the mound, Stefan Leclerc has gone from a solid and crafty starter in his junior season to a legitimate ace as a senior. Leclerc was a workhorse for the Eagles, hurling 41.2 innings and posting a 0.67 ERA in 2015. He started all of the critical games in his team’s playoff run last season and will likely do the same this year. His experience and poise should prove invaluable. Backing him up in the rotation is Duane Cyr, who quietly became a solid number two for the Eagles this season.
If Atlantic continues its recent domination of West Boca in the first round, things could get hairy afterwards. Number two seed Dwyer has had the Eagles’ number of late. Though the Eagles came out ahead of them in the district final last year, the Panthers eventually beat them in the regional tournament and then swept them this season. Royal Palm Beach and Atlantic literally split their season series by a combined score of 8-8, so that match-up would also be a coin toss. Elsewhere, they split with Forest Hill in the regular season but dropped a third contest in the Santaluces Slam, also split with Lake Worth and swept Olympic Heights.
The race in 7A-13 has been neck-and-neck all season and the Eagles are as likely as anyone to make a run at the title. The only thing that is certain is that they won’t be able to sneak up on anybody like they did last year.
5. West Boca – For years West Boca versus Atlantic has been one of the premier playoff rivalries in all of Palm Beach County. Part of that is because the game is so often played to decide the winner of the district title. But this season both clubs finished in the middle of the pack, pitting them together in the first round instead of the last.
Last year, Atlantic stunned the Bulls with a monumental upset in the semifinals, and this year West Boca will be looking to return the favor. The Bulls lost twice to the Eagles in the regular season but fans can take comfort in the fact that the third time was the charm for Atlantic last season. Any way you slice it, these are two teams that are very familiar with each other and that carry a grudge.
Early in the season, such a first-round match-up did not look likely. Despite losing a vast majority of their starters from the 21-1 squad of 2014, the Bulls jumped out to a surprising 6-0 start and hit the halfway mark at 8-4. They looked destined for the top seed once again, especially since two of those initial six victories came against the eventual number one and two seeds, Forest Hill and Dwyer.
But since then the team has slowed dramatically. They began the second half of the season on a six-game skid and approached the final week of the season three games under .500. The Bulls are young, and such growing pains were expected by new Manager Nathan Underwood, who believes his team has learned from the challenges presented by the regular season and can now do some damage in the playoffs.
At his disposal, Underwood will have a good set of arms in Grant Mahoney and Kyle Morgan. Mahoney held his own in a tight game against Dwyer ace Thomas Szapucki earlier in the year, and Morgan is a crafty lefty that will keep his club in the game. At the dish, the Bulls rely on two of the leftovers from last years squad, Chris Busch and Michael Lazarus.
Perhaps what bodes best for the Bulls is that if they can get past Atlantic, they have proven they can beat any other team in the district. They earned a regular-season split with everyone else but Lake Worth, whom they swept.
6. Olympic Heights – The Lions won three of their first four district games in Manager Casey Beck’s inaugural season with Olympic Heights. The young skipper is passionate and enthusiastic and the team has a bright future under his leadership, but this season those characteristics, which he also instills into his players, where only able to carry the team so far.
After their initial run, Olympic Heights won just two more contests against district foes to finish 5-7 in 7A-13 and earn the sixth seed. The good news for Lions fans is that their team was in many of those games. Other than Dwyer, the Lions presented a tough challenge to every team in the district. Of the five losses that came against district teams other than the Panthers, four of them were by three runs or less, proving that the Olympic Heights nine is a scrappy and resilient bunch.
First up for the Lions will be Royal Palm Beach, who they split the season series with. The Wildcats have perhaps the best pitching staff in the district, and that will make scoring runs a challenge for the Lions. Luckily for Beck, he has a solid lineup that can get on base. Ivan Ortiz owns a .414 on-base percentage while Kevin Cruz and Omar Hernandez each batted over .300 and are the club’s top run scorers. The contact numbers drop in the middle of the order but Nick Stachnik can hit for power and drive in runs.
Pitching is another story. The team’s top pitcher, Damian Gonzalez has been shelved for the season by an injury and they have had trouble finding someone who can make up for his 0.47 ERA. Matthew Levine and Jared Spector were the team’s top inning-eaters with 35 apiece, and Cruz had the second best ERA, 2.80, albeit in just 10 innings of work.
Royal Palm has struggled at the plate all season though, so that can alleviate some of the pressure on the Lions rotation in the first round. With that in mind, the match up projects to be a low-scoring affair. If the Lions can scrape out enough runs to come out on top, then continue to battle as they have all season, they may be able to open some eyes and make a run.
7. Lake Worth –This was supposed to be the year when Bobby Gilbert’s Trojans made an impact in 7A-13. Unfortunately, things did not go that way for Lake Worth, as its only district win came against Atlantic.
As a result, the Trojans draw the final seed in the tournament and face off against Dwyer in the first round. They met the heavily-favored Panthers to begin the tournament last year as well and ended up holding their own in a 3-1 loss. This time around they will surely be looking to build off the confidence they garnered from that experience and kick off a timely winning streak.
On the offensive side, the Trojans certainly have the sticks. Widgy Adea, Tyler Vander Sande and Luis Ramos all hit over .300 and Vander Sande also slugged .492. Combined with Gilbert’s trademark aggressive base running, the team scored 101 runs on the season.
On the flip side, of the 165 runs the Trojans allowed, only 102 of them were earned. Fundamentals have long been a sticking point for Gilbert and his fear of his team beating itself with costly mistakes certainly came to fruition at times throughout the regular season.
Jonathan Rodriguez leads the way for Lake Worth on the mound. He gave up just three runs per seven innings and struck out 35 as compared to 12 walks. He gives the team a chance to win every time he is on the bump.
If they are to get past Dwyer in the first round, the Trojans will have to be firing on all cylinders and limit their mistakes. Playoff baseball brings with it a higher intensity and it will be interesting to see if the Trojans rise to the occasion.