From Perfect Game USA
In 2011, seven teams from the New York Collegiate Baseball League and one expansion team united to form the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League.
The Mohawk Valley Diamond Dawgs have come a long way in the last five years. When Travis Heiser was hired as assistant coach in 2008, the team played in front of 50 fans a night. With Heiser now established as the team’s President and General Manager, they sold nearly 1,000 tickets a game last year. Perhaps more importantly, they’re fielding a better team — one that as of Tuesday morning is in second place, thanks to a current 11-game winning streak.
“I love our team this year,” Heiser said. “They have a different feel in terms of work ethic and never giving up. It’s a credit to Coach Vaz and Coach Erzar for their hard work and discipline.”
After a slow start, the Diamond Dawgs have won 18 of their last 24 games — including a victory over the league-leading Amsterdam Mohawks — and are now just five games out of first place in the PGCBL standings. Their recent success earned them consideration for this week’s PG Summer Collegiate team rankings.
While the team’s pitching has been strong all season, their hitting is what has catapulted them up the standings.
Outfielder Eric Helmrich (Marist College) leads the league with seven home runs, while Chris Cruz (Cornell) and Jack Morrow (Young Harris) have five homers each. The team has 24 total homers, more than the previous three years combined.
Helmrich, a preseason All-Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference selection in his third season at Marist, has a .283/.371/.557 batting line in 30 games for the Diamond Dawgs.
Outfielder Chris Cruz was All-Ivy League second team at Cornell this year. He set a single-season program record with 12 home runs, one of which was a walk-off blast to beat Dartmouth in the Ivy League Championship Series, securing both a league title and an NCAA berth. In 29 games with the Diamond Dawgs, Cruz is batting .336/.435/.593 with 16 extra-base hits and nine stolen bases. Cruz’s recent success earned him the PGCBL player of the week award last week.
Morrow, who played in the 2008 PG/WWBA 16u and 2009 PG/WWBA 17u National Championship tournaments, is batting .323/.396/.567 in 33 games.
“This is the life,” Morrow said. “You wake up, go to the gym and then show up at the ball park. You get to play baseball every day, and there’s nothing better than that.”
Morrow had Tommy John surgery last September, forcing him to move from catcher to first base. His first summer league experience has allowed him to improve not only at his new position, but at the plate as well.
“To be honest, a lot of my success this summer is thanks to Coach Vaz,” Morrow said. “He’s a great hitting coach, one of the best I’ve ever played with. He’s taught me so much about having a good approach and being aggressive early in the count and getting that one pitch you can hit, and hitting it every time.”
Infielder Tyler Heck (Union College, N.Y.), who was an All-Liberty League first team selection this season, has benefitted under Coach Vaz’s tutelage as well. In 122 at-bats with the Diamond Dawgs, Heck leads the team in runs scored (38), triples (four) and stolen bases (19). He ranks second on the team with 39 hits and fourth in batting average (.320).
Outfielder Mark Stuckey (Marist), who competed in six PG events between 2007 and 2008, leads the team with 17 doubles and a .351 batting average.
The Diamond Dawgs’ bats rank second in the league with a collective .284 batting average and 241 runs scored, but their second-ranked ERA (3.44) might be even more impressive. Their pitchers have held opponents to three runs or less in seven of their last 10 games.
John Means (Ford Scott CC) and Joe Michaud (Bryant) rank first and second in ERA among the league’s qualified starters, posting marks of 0.97 and 1.29, respectively.
Means has a 46/16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 37 innings. His freshman performance at Ford Scott CC and summer success with Mohawk Valley has earned him a spot on West Virginia’s roster next season.
“Joe Means has been a pleasant surprise,” Heiser said. “He was drafted out of high school. He’s a good sized kid, a lefty who throws 88-89 mph. For a young kid, he knows how to pitch and he’s very mature for his age. He’s like a Greg Maddux, he can locate and he’s very smart. He’s just a quiet kid who just gets the job done.”
Michaud has been equally as dominant. He leads the league with 48 strikeouts in 35 innings and has issued only 10 walks.
Michaud played for the Diamond Dawgs in 2010 when they were still a part of the New York Collegiate Baseball League. He says the competition in the PGCBL has been much better, forcing him to elevate his game.
“The competition was pretty good when I was here two years ago, but I think it’s better now,” Michaud said. “With the competition getting better, the fielders behind me are better. Also, our offense is scoring quite a bit during this winning streak, so it’s easy to pitch when you’re always up big in the early innings.”
A three-year player at Bryant University in Rhode Island, Michaud attributes his own success to improved mechanics and better command of his pitches: A mid-to-upper 80s mph fastball that touches 90, a curveball and a change-up.
“I’ve been throwing fastballs to get ahead in the count and finish with whatever is working that day,” he said. “A couple of games this year I’ve had a change-up that’s been effective and most games I’ve been able to throw a curveball for strikes. I try to use the defense too, they’ve helped me out a lot.”
Jesse Buratt (Baton Rouge C.C) won the league’s pitcher of the week award last week after throwing the first no-hitter in PGCBL history, a seven-inning masterpiece against Albany. In two starts this summer — the other a win over first place Amsterdam — Buratt is 2-0 with a 0.69 ERA.
Mead, Michaud and Buratt aren’t the only Diamond Dawgs pitching lights-out, as their bullpen has been spectacular as well. Aaron Casper (Canisius College), Raymond Morton (Norfolk State) and Sal Lisanti (Bryant) have a combined 1.66 ERA in 65 innings.
The Diamond Dawgs will be represented by seven players in the 2012 PGCBL All-Star Game on July 24, including: Aaron Casper, John Means, Chris Cruz, Eric Helmrich, Mark Stuckey, Joe Michaud and Tyler Heck.
“It starts at the top,” Heiser said of his team’s overall success. “And that includes all the guys that helped put this team together. We went after kids who want to be here for the right reasons and want to get better.”
Getting better is the goal of every player on the Mohawk Valley squad, but it’s not their only task.
“We want the players to be seen outside the stadium,” Heiser said. “For two months, these guys are seen as Gods. They walk around and kids see them like they’re Derek Jeter or David Wright. We participate in parades, we read for schools and we go to library programs. We’ve even done post-game kick ball games at the stadium with the kids. It’s nice to have a team of well-rounded student-athletes who are good ball players, but also good people.
The Diamond Dawgs are growing in popularity thanks to their community involvement. That includes the work of a former big league pitcher — one who is better known for the surgery named after him than his 288 wins and 26 years in the majors.
Tommy John was the first guest speaker at the Diamond Dawgs’ annual hot stove dinner, an event that sees former local players inducted into the Mohawk Valley Hall of Fame.
“He’s become involved more with the team,” Heiser said. “We talk once a week about players and different situations. He’s been a great asset to our organization. He’s going to be here for the last two games of the season. When he comes up, he’ll coach first base, he’ll go out in the community and talk to kids. He’s very good to us.”
The Diamond Dawgs hope to combine John’s guidance with their standout pitching and red-hot bats under Coach Vaz’s instruction to do something they haven’t done in two years: Make the playoffs.
“Realistically, the goal is to make the playoffs,” Heiser said. “And once we do, we want to win the league. We’re not going to be happy with just making it. We know it’s a developmental league, but at the end of the day, these kids are playing hard and the coaches are coaching. We want to win it all.”
Heiser says the Perfect Game label has increased league competition and peaked interest, making his job more exciting.
“When we started the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League — obviously people in the baseball world have heard of Perfect Game, but in our area, people may have not,” Heiser said. “But as the years progress and we promote Perfect Game as the premier scouting service, we expect the league to continue to grow.”
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