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Perfect Game: Stewart leads Elite to playoffs

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Thursday was a must-win game for US Baseball Elite if they wanted to earn a spot in the 13u PG Super25 National Championship bracket. Sitting at a 2-1 mark heading into their matchup with the 2-0 South Troy Dodgers, Sal Stewart took the ball and made sure his teammates would get the chance to duke it out among the country’s best 13u teams over the weekend.

Stewart carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning and finished with a one-hit shutout, striking out eight batters and ended the game with an RBI single to finish off the Dodgers 8-0. The righthander displayed moxie and a little flair using a hesitation-shimmy and quick-pitch along with his standard delivery much like the Giants’ Johnny Cueto uses to great effect.

“He’s a Miami kid and he obviously has that swagger you see from his cultural background that really helps him,” US Baseball Elite head coach Mark Helsel said. “I told our kids, the team will follow the lead of the starting pitcher and Sal brought the attitude by throwing strikes early to get the team going. Knowing we had to win this game to make the playoffs, he set the tone for us.”

Both teams did went into the third inning without a hit before US Baseball Elite got their bats working in the home half of the third.

Alex Knapp dropped a bunt single down the third base line with one out and after Drew Wyers worked a walk, Mason Morris delivered a booming triple to the left-center field wall to score Knapp and Wyers. Sabien Rivera would lay another bunt down on a safety squeeze and successfully brought Morris in to make it 3-0.

Jeremiah Jenkins launched a two-out double to center and after an infield single by Josh Braxton, Dylan Bowen hit a line drive to center that the South Troy center fielder got a glove to it but couldn’t hold onto to it, allowing two runs to score.

Bowen would make it 6-0 after he stole second, and scampered home after his steal of third forced the South Troy catcher to rush his throw and send it down the left field line.

In the fifth, Wyers reached on a bunt single, stole second, moved to third on a ball in the dirt and scored on a wild pitch to make it 7-0.

A Roberto Barron single to center with two outs in the sixth broke up Stewart’s no-hitter, but Stewart’s run-scoring single in the bottom half of the inning gave him the final say in the outcome.

Offense had been the story for US Baseball Elite scoring a 17-1 win against Dig In Baseball and a 13-11 slugfest triumph over Arsenal on Tuesday. They saw another team put up a lot of run in their third game against the Motor City Hit Dogs as they lost 10-1, making Thursday’s game a must-win to guarantee their place in the playoffs.

Helsel is the National Director of the US Baseball Elite organization along with his duties as head coach of the 13u team, and the organization has had a run of success of producing top-notch teams and players who have come through their ranks. US Baseball Elite has had teams take place in Perfect Game tournaments at the 13u, 14u, 15u, 16u and 17u age divisions this summer, signifying the strength of the entire program.

In this year’s MLB Draft, seven former US Baseball Elite players were selected, with J.J. Matijevic becoming the program’s highest ever selection, going 75th overall in the second round to the Houston Astros.

“J.J. led the country in doubles this past season and becomes our highest drafted kid ever,” Heisel said. “We had a Big Ten Freshman of the Year come through here in Chad Luensmann, Colton Hock set the single-season saves record at Stanford this year and went in the fourth round. Niko Hulzier led the country in home runs and won the College Home Run Derby this season, so we’ve had all of those guys come through our program and just goes to show the success we’ve had and I’m proud to be able to say that.”

The organization’s primary goal ultimately is developing quality people. Communication skills, respect and building life skills that transcend baseball is something that Helsel values near and dear to his heart.

“We get the kids and parents to buy in to it. I like using baseball as an excuse to develop young men, and of course baseball-wise we’re trying to prepare kids for the next level but it all starts with their personal skill set. They have to have the entire package for a college to pay their way to play and go to school.

“If they don’t pursue baseball, they’re going to be standout employees for somebody or some of them even come back to help coach our teams.”

Helsel hopes his team will be continue to find the opposition’s weaknesses in order for his club to try to keep the momentum going heading to Friday.

“Every team has a weakness and it’s up to us to find a way to exploit it. We’re offensive-minded, we like to steal bases, force teams to make plays on us. We don’t change our game a whole lot and tomorrow I expect to see more of the same from us.”

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