Illinois stars shine on big stage at Busch

News-DemocratJune 13, 2014 

— On the first swing he took Thursday at Busch Stadium, Granite City High senior Chad Spanberger launched a home run.

It was one of three he hit during the Home Run Derby held before the fifth annual PNC Bank High School Baseball Showcase at Busch Stadium.

"You only get to do it once in your life," Spanberger said, although, as he was told, he could always play here somewhere down the road if he reached the majors. "Hopefully. That's a goal."

Spanberger, who bats left-handed and is headed to the University of Arkansas, crushed the first pitch he saw over the fence in right.

"It gets the nerves out," said Spanberger, who like many other players Thursday stepped onto the manicured grass of Busch Stadium for the first time. "It's bigger than what you think. That wall seems short, but when you hit it it's a lot further.

"The first one I got a little bit on my hands but the second one, I barreled up that one pretty good."

Illinois, which ended a three-year losing streak against their Missouri counterparts in 2013, waited out a rain delay and then hung four runs on the scoreboard in the first inning and led 13-3 when the game was called after six and a half innings.

The game was delayed for two hours and finally began at 9 p.m., much to the delight of players who were hoping against a postponement.

O'Fallon's Collin Holton led off with a single and scored on an RBI single by Austin Werner, the first of two hits by Werner. O'Fallon's Jeff Hahs also singled and Werner scored on an RBI single by Mascoutah first baseman Collin Renth.

Nashville catcher Jordan Harre followed with another RBI single and Renth also scored on a wild pickoff throw to second.

Werner finished the game 3-for-3 with a triple and three RBIs.

Collinsville senior and recent Toronto Blue Jays 12th-round pick Tanner Houck blazed his way through the first three Missouri hitters, striking out two and retiring the third on a slow grounder back to the mound.

Many of the Illinois players got to know each other a lot better after spending so much time together on Thursday. They met for lunch at 11:30 a.m. at Cardinals Nation inside Ballpark Village and were together the rest of the day.

The players tried to keep themselves occupied during a lengthy rain delay between the skills competition and the game. Originally scheduled to begin around 7:15 p.m., the game did not start until nearly 9 p.m.

"These kids have played baseball their whole lives and been in tournaments on the road and dealt with (weather)," said O'Fallon coach Jason Portz, who coached the Illinois squad along with Mascoutah coach Don Eddy. "I think our kids have done an extraordinary job today keeping themselves occupied."

Althoff outfielder Collin McClellan had a big smile as he prepared for the skills competition.

"It's pretty amazing, actually," said McClellan, who has signed with Prairie View A&M. "I've never been down on the field, even close to being down in this area of the field. I've been to a lot fo Cardinals games and every time we went we had the highest section. That's as close as I've ever been."

Where did the experience rank in McClellan's young life?

I'll remember this forever," he said.

The Illinois manager was former Cardinals right-hander Danny Cox, who still lives near Freeburg. Cox was acquainted with several players on the roster, including Belleville West senior Parker Beine, from his days giving pitching lessons at an indoor facility near Freeburg.

"I knew them when they were a lot younger, in junior high," Cox said. "Their moms and dads brought them over to, we call it the pole barn, and they'd come over there and do some lessons. They'd work on hitting and pitching, just playing the game of baseball."

Cox remembered these all-stars when they were younger. And while they are still learning the game as they head off to college careers or the pros, he was proud of how far they have come.

"Good athletes, good attitude, good work ethic -- and you can see where it got them right now," Cox said. "To have this opportunity to come here and be selected as one of the very best, to have the opportunity to play at a big-league stadium ... I told them all 'congratulations.'''

"Have some fun, relax and enjoy it. No matter what there's only a few that get to do this, and you're one of those."

Cox thanked the Cardinals for asking him to participate, as well as shining a light on some talented players from the region on both sides of the river.

"Just to get them a little bit of recognition that may not otherwise happen, and especially for the Cardinals to do it in a baseball city, a baseball atmopshere ... what an opportunity," Cox said. "They took some pride in the work they did. They worked hard at pitching, worked hard at hitting and it's paid off for them."

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, nsanders@bnd.com or follow him on Twitter: @NormSanders

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