By Bill Campbell
Baseball News from Hawk Hill
We’re used to reading basketball news from St. Joe’s but baseball has created some recent headlines out on City Line Avenue. Last Friday the Hawks’ catcher, Brian O’Keefe, was chosen in the seventh round of the 2014 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. The St. Louis Cardinals picked the junior with their 225th overall selection. He is the highest draft pick to come out of the school since the Chicago Cubs drafted Jamie Moyer was drafted in the sixth round in 1984. You know Moyer, who now spends his time talking baseball with the Phillies television broadcasting team after a fine career. Now Brian O’Keefe is getting a shot at the big leagues.
A native of Albany, New York, O’Keefe said that playing pro ball has been his dream all his life. He thanked St. Joe’s for what its program has meant to him. “My time at Saint Joseph’s helped me develop into the man I want to become, and I will never forget that. I am grateful and thankful for everything and everyone at SJU.” But this young man is off to try to make it in the majors. Hawks’ head baseball coach, Fritz Hamburg, took some pride in O’Keefe’s accomplishment, saying, “Today is a great day for our program and we couldn’t be happier for Brian. I know this has been a dream of his; even in the recruiting process, we talked about it and we are excited that his dream became a reality this afternoon.”
St. Louis’s interest in O’Keefe is understandable. He earned First Team All-Atlantic 10 and Atlantic 10 All-Championship honors this season a year after being named to the All-Conference Second Team. He has also been named to the Philadelphia All-Big 5 Team in each of his three seasons on Hawk Hill. This year, he was one of 15 semifinalists for the Johnny Bench Award, given to the nation’s top collegiate catcher. He led the Atlantic 10 with 58 runs scored, tying a single-season school record and ranking fourth in all of Division I in runs per game. O’Keefe finished the season in the top nine in the conference in average (.350, seventh), slugging (.519, sixth), on-base percentage (.423, ninth), hits (75, third), RBI (43, sixth), home runs (7, tied for second), and total bases (111, second). The junior backstop led the Hawks in runs scored, hits, and home runs while throwing out over 44% of runners attempting to steal. He earned a pair of Atlantic 10 and Big 5 Baseball Player of the Week honors as well.
But the Hawks’ MLB draft connection doesn’t end there. Brian O’Keefe spent most of the season catching St. Joe’s pitcher, Jordan Carter, who was taken in the twenty-second round of the draft by the Cleveland Indians. Carter is as excited as his team-mate for the opportunity that’s come his way. “It’s something I never could imagine. But it’s great and I’m really enjoying this moment,” he said after learning the news. Carter is a local kid, a graduate of Methacton High School in Montgomery County, PA. He went 10-4 this season in 14 starts with 3 complete games and a 2.45 ERA. In 95.2 innings he struck out 81 batters and walked just 14. He said that things really came together for him during this senior year. “It was a little bit of everything. Last year, our ace, Kyle Mullen, graduated. He was just tremendous for St. Joe’s for four years really. We kind of needed someone to step in there and fill his shoes and I felt that, as a senior, it was my job. It was my job to come in here and really take control of the staff and lead by example. That and just throwing three pitches for a strike this year – change-up, slider and fastball. It’s something I’ve been trying to do for four years and finally being able to throw any pitch at any time really led to my success this year.” Carter couldn’t be more excited about his future.
This is the first time multiple Hawks have been drafted since 2011 when pitchers, Ryan Kemp and A.J. Holland, were taken: Kemp went to the Cincinnati Reds and Holland to the Atlanta Braves. We all know how tough it is to make it in the majors but we’ll be watching the careers of these two impressive young men unfold in the future. St. Joe’s seems to know how to turn out some very solid baseball players.
In the meantime, another South Jersey high school player is about to call Southern California home. The Los Angeles Angels selected St. Augustine Prep pitcher, Joe Gatto, with the fifty-third pick in the second round of the First-Year MLB Player Draft. In 2009, the Angels took Millville high alum, Mike Trout, with the 25th pick. He has since gone on to become a superstar, being named the runner-up for American League MVP each of the past two seasons. Gatto, a 6-foot-4 senior, went 7-1 with a 0.94 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 52 1/3 innings for the Hermits. He also has an NCAA Division I scholarship offer from the University of North Carolina. But it sounds like he’s off to the minor leagues rather than to college. I recently read about Gatto as he recalled the first time he ever saw Mike Trout on the baseball field. It was at Millville, New Jersey, in the Cape Atlantic’s American Division in 2009. Trout hit a home run over the center field fence and made quite an impression on Gatto. Now Joe Gatto, who has just graduated from the Richland, New Jersey, prep school, hopes to follow in Trout’s footsteps. He seems to be shaking his head at the luck of being drafted by Trout’s team, the Angels. “It’s amazing to think that we’re in the same league” let alone on the same team, Gatto said. He also revealed that Trout tweeted congratulations to him, which meant a lot to the hot young pitcher. “(Mike Trout) was nice enough to direct a message me. He didn’t have to do that. He’s an All-Star and for him to make contact with me means a lot. It shows a lot about him and a lot about the organization. I’m really happy to be a part of it.” We have another local player to watch in the seasons ahead.
All of this news about high school and college player prospects made me ask why the Phillies’ scouts weren’t on Joe Gatto’s trail? Yes, he’s a high school senior. He needs some seasoning. But he’s 6’ 3”, 225 pounds. His fastball has topped out in the 93-95 m.p.h. range. He went 7-1 with 65 strikeouts in 52 1/3 innings this spring. He posted a 0.94 ERA and finished the season with three complete-game shutouts. He had four complete games in his last five starts. He finished with a career record of 14-6 and a 1.99 ERA with 139 strikeouts. It seems to me that, with the right training and coaching, Gatto can only get better. Isn’t this the kind of talent the Phillies need to find and nurture? If the Phils don’t start to scout and sign talent like Joe Gatto – not to mention Brian O’Keefe and Jordan Carter – the team’s fortunes surely will continue to sink for many seasons to come. They’ve lost 36 of 61 games this season and, at this writing, have the worst record in the National League. They also have an aging team with few marketable players as the July 31st trade deadline approaches. But only a few of the players they’ve brought up from the system in the last year or two have impressed so far. Yet the Los Angeles Angels scooped up Joe Gatto. If someone can explain it, please share your wisdom with me.
Phillies’ bench coach, Larry Bowa, was absolutely right when he lost his temper with the team last week. He spoke as a former player and present coach to the team but he also put a voice to the fans’ frustrations. “I think they’re more frustrated at the way we lose. And they should be. That’s not big-league baseball, what we’ve been doing at home. That’s not big-league baseball.” He’s absolutely right. As for the state of the clubhouse after the team lost four of five to the Mets last week, Bowa said, “It was pretty quiet. It should be. You have players here in the big leagues who aren’t playing like big leaguers. I understand; it’s a long season and there are periods of time when I played and things went bad. But we’re going into June. And there are some players right now who need to pick it up. There’s no question about that.” Bowa also said something that really concerned me, although it fits with what I see and, no doubt, with what the fans see day after day: there doesn’t seem to be any sense of urgency or passion with this team despite their poor won-loss record. A team without that just won’t win. “A coach shouldn’t be angrier than the players right now,” Bowa said. “I hope they’re angry.” I hope they are too. If they are, that anger could motivate them out of the basement they’re playing in. If they’re not, they may as well cash in their chips.
On a brighter note, the Eagles first preseason game will be played at Soldier Field in Chicago on August first. Their first regular season game will be at The Linc in Philadelphia on September 7th at 1:00 p.m. That’s my birthday. Eighty-eight days from today. I’m looking forward to both.