Team USA Wins Futures Game

The Future stars of Baseball showcased their skills to the world on a Major League stage on Sunday at Houston's Minute Maid Park. While it was a mere flashbulb compared to the neon lights of the Major League All Star Game, the Futures Game once again gave ardent baseball fans a glimpse into the not so distant future.

It wasn't long ago that names like Mulder, Sheets, Berkman, and Crawford sparkled for Team USA and Soriano, Victor Martinez, and Miguel Cabrera shined for the World Team. It has almost become a rite of passage for the game's next big league stars before they get that eventual call-up to the "show." In years past, it has been the position players who have etched their names in our baseball minds. Who can forget Alfonso Soriano's two home-run display at Fenway Park of all places, before arriving for real in 2001. However, this year a new message was sent and it is making its waves through the big leagues – young power pitching.

Joe Blanton (Oakland A's) toed the rubber in inning one for Team USA, and was matched with an equally impressive performance in the first inning by Jeff Francis (Rockies) of Vancouver, British Columbia. Blanton, a righty, and Francis, a lefty, both showed why they are Top-5 prospects for their respective organizations. Francis struck out two potential 2005 major leaguers in B.J. Upton (Devil Rays) and Dallas McPherson (Angels), displaying a sweeping breaking ball and deft command of all of his pitches.

The second inning's pitchers would not disappoint as Tim Stauffer (Padres) took the mound for Team USA and was more impressive than his predecessors. Stauffer, San Diego's 1st round selection in 2003, struggled with shoulder problems after leaving the University of Richmond last year. However, he has bounced back strong in 2004 by rising from High Class-A to Triple AAA in a matter of months. He gave good reason for his promotion with a strong 2-strikeout performance of his own. Stauffer showed great movement on his fastball, a tough cutter to lefties, and solid command of all his pitches. Felix Hernandez (Mariners), 18 years of age and hailing from Venezuela, game Mariners fans hope for the future as they watched their #1 prospect on display. Despite giving up an opposite field single to Prince Fielder, the young pitcher showed poise in dominating Mets phenom, third-baseman David Wright, whom he struck out with a 12-6 curveball after Wright had swung through high 90's heat. Hernandez then induced switch-hitting catcher Koyle Hill (Dodgers) to ground into a nicely turned 4-6-3 double play by Ruben Gotay (Royals) to end the inning.

The third inning finally brought trouble to the game's pitchers and the Rangers' top pitching prospect, John Danks was on the receiving end as he was forced to wiggle out of a tough jam. Joel Guzman (Dodgers), a 19 year-old 6'6" shortstop out of the Dominican Republic, led off the inning with a hot shot single up the middle that was cut off on a nice effort by second baseman Chris Burke of the hometown Astros. Willy Taveras (Astros), also playing in his potential future home, reached on an error after David Wright couldn't corral his hot smash in the hole. Danks settled down enough to strike out Ruben Gotay and induce a fielder's choice out of Justin Morneau (Twins). He wasn't out of trouble yet when Edwin Encarnacion made a bid for his second hit on a well-hit ball that once again Wright could not handle. With the bases loaded, Danks flashed repeated inside fastballs on the hands of left-handed Shin Soo Choo (Mariners) of South Korea. Finally he retired Choo to end the inning and he showed great moxie in escaping the inning with no runs. John Danks' effort would eventually land him the game's victory. Another southpaw, Wilfredo Ledezma (Tigers) from Venezuela, would not be so fortunate in the bottom half of the inning. After surrendering solid singles to Jason Kubel (Twins) and Chris Burke, Ledezma looked to retire future Tampa Bay shortstop B.J. Upton to end the inning. He did his part in jamming Upton and forcing him to pop up into shallow right field, but the closed roof, which seemed to be a problem for outfielders all game, befuddled Shin Soo Choo who misplayed the final out into allowing two unearned runs to score.

Jose Capellan (Braves), of the Dominican Republic, came on in the bottom half of the fourth and looked very impressive. Capellan, who began making a name for himself in the Grapefruit league this year, threw almost exclusively fastballs and with good reason. His fastball was topping out at 98mph and he used it to easily dispose of Dallas McPherson and Prince Fielder on swinging strikeouts. He gave up a single to a potential future division rival in David Wright, but immediately retired the next batter to end the inning.

In the inning that followed, Arnie Munoz (White Sox), came on to pitch for the World team. Munoz actually made his big league debut earlier this year, but it was not a good one, and that shakiness carried over to another big stage as he gave up a leadoff double to left-fielder Conor Jackson (Diamondbacks), who was Arizona's 1st round pick last year. Munoz would only stay on to get one out after Andy Marte (Braves) had his own problems at the hot corner and put runners on first and second. Munoz was lifted in favor of Yusmeiro Petit (Mets) who has been dominating Class-A level competition. Petit displayed a tough curveball to force #1 prospect Richie Weeks (Brewers) to pop out to Robinson Cano (Yankees) and eventually strike out Michael Aubrey (Indians) for the final out. However, in between, little known shortstop Aaron Hill (Blue Jays) who had replaced BJ Upton in the game and fellow Blue Jays prospect, Russ Adams, on the roster, made a name for himself. He stroked a two run double off the left-field scoreboard and was on his way to being named MVP of the Futures Game as well as joining the likes of four current big leaguers.

Team USA had scored 4 unearned runs; comfortably led 4-0 and their pitching continued to dominate through the sixth inning. In the top of the sixth, David Wright atoned for his earlier gaffes and made perhaps the best defensive play of the game. Wright ranged far to his left, cutting in front of Aaron Hill, to make an impressive play and even more impressive off balance throw to nail Andy Marte at first base. Even Tony Gwynn was impressed in the bottom half of the sixth when Jairo Garcia (Oakland A's), a supposed non-prospect entering the 2004 season, flashed a nasty breaking ball to strike out the only batter he faced, Jeff Mathis (Angels), the top catcher and #2 overall prospect in the Anaheim system.

The World Team would make a gallant comeback try in the final inning. Matt Cain, the #2 pitching prospect and 2002 1st round selection of the Giants, entered the game and loaded the bases with two walks and a double sandwiched in between. He was immediately lifted but not before Goose Gossage, Team USA manager, left him with some encouraging words. Gavin Floyd, the #2 pitching prospect and 2001 1st round selection of the Phillies, took the ball from Gossage with hopes of saving the game. Floyd would surrender an RBI single to 19 year-old Felix Pie (Cubs), a productive RBI groundout to first base by a disappointed Robinson Cano, and throw a wild pitch, which allowed the third run to score, before striking out Justin Morneau. Despite the results, Floyd was impressive featuring a mid 90s fastball with outstanding movement and a hammer curve. The Tigers' 2003 3rd overall selection and #1 prospect, Kyle Sleeth would enter the game for the final out in which he easily put down Andy Marte on a grounder to MVP Aaron Hill.

Team USA won 4-3, but more importantly we were given a glimpse into a bright future of pitching stars. In a game that has been dominated by offense for the past decade, we were reminded of the foundation of championship baseball. It will always be starting pitchers who have solid command of their arsenal of pitches and relievers coming out of the pen with poise and throwing heat. We have begun to see an influx of that type of pitching throughout the majors and teams have learned that buying this type of pitching on the open market is all too expensive. They are learning it is a must to find young golden arms and develop them into diamonds around your ring finger.

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