Sunday, June 15, 2008

From the NECBL to the US National Team:

Summer league experience proved crucial to Strasberg, den Dekker

by Joe Gravellese

The United States national team continued its tour of the New England Collegiate Baseball League on Saturday night, falling to the North Shore Navigators, 6-3, at Fraser Field in Lynn, MA. The national team will play against seven NECBL opponents before finalizing its 22-man roster.

Two members of the national team, Stephen Strasburg and Matt den Dekker, are alumni of the NECBL.

Strasburg, a right handed pitcher from San Diego, California, spent last summer with the Torrington Twisters. He is widely considered to be one of the top prospects in next year’s MLB draft. In 13 appearances for the Twisters, Strasburg went 1-0 with a 1.29 ERA, striking out 25 while walking just one batter.

“In my freshman year in the fall, my coach came up to me and said, ‘You’re going to be playing in Connecticut next summer,” Strasburg recalled, smiling. “No questions about it, you’re going.”

“As it turned out, it’s a great league, and I had a really good experience.”

Strasburg said that his time in the NECBL brought him many new and unique experiences.

“Pitching in front of thousands of fans, that was something new to me,” he said. “Also, my host family was just unbelievable. They made the whole summer really special.”

Playing in the league helped Strasburg hone his skills and get noticed by scouts for the national team.

“It really helped me get a chance to work on things throughout the summer. I was able to work on my changeup, and work on pitching inside. I was able to get stronger as a pitcher… the NECBL is definitely up there with the top summer leagues, so playing against such great competition really helped my game.”

“I have no idea what the future holds for me,” continued Strasburg. “But I’m just taking the approach of going out there and giving it everything I’ve got each time out.” It is this attitude – one of hard work and dedication to the game – that has turned fans across New England on to the NECBL.

Matt den Dekker also experienced the NECBL, playing for the Keene Swamp Bats last season. The Ft. Lauderdale, Florida native, who plies his trade for the vaunted Florida Gators, also found out about the NECBL from his coach.

“My coaches knew that [the NECBL] is a great league with a lot of the best players from around the country,” said den Dekker.

“It was a great experience, not just on the field – we got to play in some great ballparks, and play in beautiful weather, compared to down south.”

On the field, playing in the league helped den Dekker in his development. “Getting the opportunity to play every day was huge for me,” he said. “I played on and off freshman year, so being in the lineup every day helped me with my confidence and helped me with my swing. This is definitely one of the elite college summer leagues, so playing this kind of competition really helped.”

Den Dekker’s stellar play for Florida and for Keene caught the eye of the US national team, who called to invite him just three weeks ago. “It’s such an incredible feeling to get to play for your country,” he said. “It’s a great honor and I’m excited to have a chance to make the team. I’m not sure if I’ll make the team or not, but I’m going to work my hardest no matter what, and we’ll see what happens.”

The United States collegiate team features the very best professional prospects in the country. Nomar Garciaparra, Ryan Howard, Jason Varitek, Huston Street, Todd Helton, and Tino Martinez represent a small fraction of the dozens of players who have traded in the national team jersey for a major league jersey.

6 members of the national team are currently participating in the College World Series, including Kyle Bellamy, Chris Hernandez, and Ryan Jackson of the University of Miami.

The honor of facing off against such outstanding players is not lost on the Navigators.

“It’s awesome,” said Sean McNaughton, the Navs’ leadoff hitter and centerfielder from Brigham Young University. “These guys have a busy schedule, playing all over the country. So for them to take the time to come here and play us is a real thrill. It was great for us to see great pitching and great hitting all game long.”

As exciting as it was just to play against the national team, McNaughton was even more pleased to have beaten them.

“That’s going to set the tone for the rest of the season for us,” he said. “We’re looking to come out with the same approach we took tonight, and play like that for the rest of the season.”

“I was a little nervous in the days leading up to the game, knowing I’d be facing them,” said North Shore starting pitcher Jimmy Lisowski, who earned the victory with 5 strong innings of work. “These guys are the best of the best. I was able to work on mixing up my pitches and going right after them, showing myself that I can compete with anyone.”

The national team will head to North Adams, Pittsfield, and Torrington over the next three nights before wrapping up their NECBL tour on Thursday against the Newport Gulls.

The Navigators, meanwhile, return to league action tomorrow night, taking on the Sanford Mainers before embarking on a six game road swing.

The Navs are in the middle of their inaugural season at Lynn’s Fraser Field. Fans can find out more information at the team’s official website,

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