Greg Hansen: Sahuaro pitcher is next can't-miss kid

With 92-mph fastball and bat, Verdugo joins list of Sahuaro greats
2013-04-30T00:00:00Z 2013-10-18T10:46:21Z Greg Hansen: Sahuaro pitcher is next can't-miss kidGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 30, 2013 12:00 am  • 

At a school that has won three state championships and produced major-league ballplayers Jim Olander, Sammy Khalifa, Tom Wiedenbauer and John Butcher, a skinny eighth-grader wearing his cap backward shouldn't turn the coach's head.

Sahuaro is a tradition-blessed place that has delivered second-round draft picks like Kevin Dukes and Wes Kent, College World Series standouts such as Joe Estes and Gib Siebert, and All-Pac-10 two-sport stars Rodney Peete and Steve Martin.

But when a 14-year-old middle school kid they call "Doogie," a lefty, showed up to watch his brother practice in 2010, Cougars coach Mark Chandler saw through the baggy shorts and free spirit.

"Bring your stuff," Chandler told Alex Verdugo four years ago. "Let's see what you can do."

This wouldn't be an easy mark, a coaching staff fawning over a kid blessed with talent. Chandler is a Marine who served as an infantryman at Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Sahuaro assistant coach Tim Gillooly is an official in the prison system, at the Arizona Department of Corrections.

"Tim would tell him, 'Pull up your pants! Turn that hat around! Look like a ballplayer!" Chandler recalls. "And Alex would say, 'I didn't come here to get yelled at.'"

That's when Alex Verdugo was attending Magee Middle School and his brother, Chris Verdugo, hit. 295 for a Sahuaro team that won 20 games and advanced to the second round of the state playoffs.

"When Alex stepped into the batter's box, my God, it was just incredible to watch," Chandler says now. "I thought if he could grow up just a little bit, respect the game, that he had a chance to be electric. And now here he is, three years later, hitting .500, and striking out 102 batters in 51 innings. It's mind boggling what he's done."

It's no longer an unusual notion to get carried away by a high school ballplayer in Tucson.

Since Alex Kellner, a future major-league All-Star, left Amphitheater High School 75 years ago, a lefty pitcher-outfielder who would fill the grandstands at old Hi Corbett Field, Tucson has produced more big-time, big-game high school baseball players than in any other sport.

It would be impossible to accurately choose even the 25 leading prep baseball players in Tucson history, from Kellner, Lee Carey, Dave Baldwin, Eddie Leon, Jim Crawford and Paul Moskau of the 1930-70 era, and then moving on to the Ed Vosberg, Mark Carreon, Tavo Alvarez, Shelley Duncan, J.J. Hardy and Will Smith era of the last 40 years.

But when talented Sahuaro ( 24-4) opens the state playoffs at home today at 4 p.m. against Catalina Foothills, Verdugo will be fighting to earn a place in that distinguished group. Few can match his numbers, from 1940 to 2013.

The 6-foot-1-inch junior is hitting exactly .500 and has a spotless 8-0 pitching record with 102 strikeouts in 51 innings. His ERA is 1.08. And those numbers aren't much different than those of his first two seasons.

Verdugo hit .456 as a freshman and .472 as a sophomore. He won 12 games over that stretch, striking out 178 in 129 innings.

More? He has stolen 46 bases in 52 attempts. Scouts have clocked his fastball consistently in the low 90s. "He's a five-tool guy," says Chandler.

"Doogie could hit close to .700 if he didn't give away a few at-bats when he seems to lose interest,'' says Sahuaro assistant coach Jaime Ledesma, a former all-city outfielder at Catalina. "I don't know if he's a better prospect as a pitcher or as an everyday player."

Sahuaro is much more than Verdugo; it was a consistent winner before he showed up. Chandler has coached the Cougars to 190 victories in 10 seasons, taking Sahuaro to the 2007 state title game.

The Cougars that surround Verdugo are outstanding, a junior-dominated team that will bid for a state title next year as well. Junior Vinnie Tarantola, a three-year starter, is hitting .378 and has won five games as the club's No. 2 starter. Junior Justin Hammergren, also a three-year starter, is hitting .360 and has a 5-0 record as the team's No. 3 starter.

It's that type of pitching depth that makes Sahuaro a threat to win its first state title since the Rodney Peete and coach Hal Eustice-led team of 1982.

Senior shortstop Frank Silva, hitting .393, and junior Winston Welch, .348, are significant pieces to a team with a .341 batting average and, amazingly, 90 steals.

"The state tournament is a one-and-done deal at this stage," says Chandler. "You can't have an off day. So we're just trying to beat Foothills and get to Thursday, when eight teams begin double-elimination play. Ultimately, you've got to make a run."

But when you start with an undefeated pitcher throwing 92-mph fastballs, hitting .500 and stealing bases at a Rickey Henderson clip, you've gotta like your chances.

Contact columnist Greg Hansen at ghansen@azstarnet.com or 573-4362. On Twitter @ghansen711

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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