Posted: 5:18 pm Monday, April 18th, 2011

Baseball: Strong, balanced Palm Beach Gardens ready for 9-6A tournament 

By Matt Porter

Every team in the District 9-6A tournament knows it will face their opponent’s best pitcher in the first round, and chances are it will be a pitcher it has seen before. That lack of mystery comforts Palm Beach Gardens coach Joe Russo.

Gardens ace J.D. Underwood is a tough first-round matchup. (Bruce R. Bennett/The Palm Beach Post)

Gardens ace J.D. Underwood is a tough first-round matchup. (Bruce R. Bennett/The Palm Beach Post)

“I don’t think there’s anybody that fears anybody,” Russo said Friday, before his team’s final 9-6A game, a 13-4 loss to Jupiter. “You just have to play your best. There’s no easy answer: Jupiter’s guys, Central, even with Poyner out, Garito at Atlantic, of course Smith … Farjad. No matter who we play, it’ll be tough.”

“We’re pretty solid,” Russo said. “I think we’re very capable of winning those tough games against those tough pitchers.”

Gardens (16-7, 4-4) started the season 7-0 before a four-game slide in which it lost to Bobby Poyner and Palm Beach Central, T.J. Farjad and Seminole Ridge and two tough out-of-area games to Columbia and Palatka. “We went on a little stretch where we weren’t hitting those two-out base hits. Just a little run that every team experiences a little bit,” Russo said.

Since then, Gardens has gone 9-3, losing one-run games to Gainesville-Buchholz and to Santaluces’ Kyle Smith, and Friday’s loss to Jupiter, where Jupiter’s Calvin Greener and Gardens ace J.D. Underwood were knocked around by two potent offenses.

Underwood will face Seminole Ridge’s Farjad Tuesday in a rematch of the teams’ March 11 meeting, in which Farjad struck out 14 Gators in a 2-1 win.
Farjad is tough, but Gardens knows what should be coming. It’s up to them to hit it, and up to Underwood to match his counterpart.

Aside from a four-run second inning in Friday’s loss, Underwood (6-3, 1.36, 60 strikeouts in 51.1 innings) has been excellent for much of the year. He brings a mid-80s fastball, strong curve and goes deep into games. Behind him, seniors Tim Jeffrey (32 K) and J.T. Trujillo (29 K) are more than capable. “The first part of the year I was concerned a little about our pitching depth, but I feel really good about our three starters,” Russo said. “They’ve held some really good teams in check.” Junior reliever Brooks de Montluzin has a 4-0 record and 1.75 ERA.

The Gators have gap power up and down the lineup. Senior center fielder Maxx Smith, who battled a hamstring injury, is healthy and has three homers and 16 RBI. Junior catcher Darren Hansen (team-high 20 RBI) led the Gators in batting last year. The No. 3 hitter, senior shortstop Tommy Williams (6-2, 180, .364, team-high 4 HR), is headed to Central Florida and has pro scouts poking around. He has a good double-play partner in junior second baseman Nick Oberg.

Underwood (6-2, 200) bats lefty and hits cleanup. Jeffrey (.417), who has interest from PBSC, swings a great stick and has a big (6-3, 210) frame. He usually bats fifth. Freshman first baseman Pavin Smith, who missed three weeks with a fractured hand, has been a strong lefty bat in the lower part of the order. Junior third baseman Taylor Maura has struggled of late but shown good power. Senior outfielder Wesley Lay has some pop as well.

The Gators should get to the second round if they can put the ball in play against Farjad. If Seminole Ridge is bad with the leather, Gardens will score some runs. Of course, the comfortable can become unfamiliar pretty quick in a tournament as deep and balanced as this.