Summit’s Mitchell Gray pitches for New Zealand in IBAF 21U Baseball World Cup
Less than 24 hours after the Summit High School boys soccer team’s state championship quarterfinals loss to The Classical Academy, Saturday, Nov. 1, senior defensive captain Mitchell Gray was on a plane to Taiwan. And in a little more than 48 hours, soccer season became baseball season.
What started as a joke between Gray and his dad had turned into a spot in the pitching rotation on the 21-and-under New Zealand national team for the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) 21U Baseball World Cup in Taiwan.
“I didn’t think it was possible, because I was a 17-year-old kid,” Gray said.
He and his dad, Martin, a New Zealand native, threw the idea around and then decided to reach out to coaches and send the national team clips of Mitchell pitching.
When the call came, Gray said the reality set in. He’d be going up against college-age players who included some minor-league level baseball talent. In addition to their 21-and-under players, teams were also able to field a limited number of players up to age 23.
“When I was told I was on the team I was pretty nervous,” Gray said. “I knew I had to get throwing or I’d be screwed.”
He got to work, using October to balance soccer and pitching practice at the indoor facility in Dillon.
“I hadn’t pitched in two-plus months until I heard I was on the team,” he said, describing his limited practice time.
By the time the trip to Taiwan came around, he was still rusty and only at around 70 percent, he said.
“I did not feel prepared. My command wasn’t the same; my velocity wasn’t the same.”
But New Zealand bench coach, Los Angeles Dodgers scout and former major league catcher Josh Bard said Gray rose to the occasion.
“We had to go from zero to a hundred in a hurry,” Bard said of the four days of practice before the tournament started. “I thought he did great. It was interesting to see one of our youngest guys show that much courage.”
Gray’s first shot came in the third game of the five-game opening round — three days after his 18th birthday. After a 7-2 loss to Italy and a 9-5 win over Mexico, his New Zealand team faced the Czech Republic.
Gray came out of the bullpen in the fourth inning, pitched four innings and held the Czechs to two runs, contributing to a 6-5 win.
“We don’t win (that game) without him,” Bard said. “He was elite. There was no fear. He attacked and he should be really proud of that. I think it takes a ton of guts. To not shy away from the fight showed me something.”
The Dodgers scout went on to describe some of the talent in the tournament as college or single-A level.
“Thinking about it beforehand was definitely the scariest, most nerve-racking of the whole trip,” Gray said. “The first game I was really nervous in the bullpen. Once I stepped on the mound I kind of went blank and was able to focus.”
When pitching, he said he doesn’t even see the batters so it didn’t matter much who he was facing.
“I get tunnel vision,” he explained. “I look at the catcher.”
With a 2-5 record and a number of close games, New Zealand fell one win short of making it to the elimination round of play, finishing 10th. Chinese Taipei won the tournament in a final game against Japan.
Gray got one more chance to pitch a third of an inning, late in a 9-8 loss to Venezuela.
“I thought both outings were really good,” Bard said of his young pitcher, adding that if Gray continues to progress and build strength he may have a bright future ahead.
“I think the sky’s the limit,” Bard said.
Looking back on his trip, Gray called it the “experience of a lifetime,” and said playing on a world stage against much older competition gave him a lot of confidence headed into his senior season this spring. He’s hoping to play in college.
“Baseball was always my first sport,” he said of the decision to pursue it over soccer or basketball. “I feel like that’s my strong suit.”
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