The playoffs have arrived. But before they arrived, I’ve spent time complaining about the lack of 2022 hitter performances. Okay, so ‘complaining’ is too harsh. However, I’ve written before about feeling like a curse to the 2022 class when I show up because there hasn’t been one of those “oh my God!” hitting performances that sends me to my car after the game with a jubilant step instead of a sullen shuffle. In his biggest regular-season game of the season, Jace LaViolette delivered the performance I’ve been waiting on. Better late than never, I suppose.

Let’s get to the newest edition of Dustin’s Deep Drives, which begins with the final day of the regular season and carries into the first round of the playoffs.

Tompkins at Katy

KATY HIGH SCHOOL – With a district title on the line, Tompkins had revenge on its mind. Katy, and right-handed starting pitcher Lucas Moore, handed the nationally-ranked Falcons their only loss of the regular season. Katy awaited Tompkins with Moore on the mound. However, Tompkins, led by perhaps the best single-game performance I’ve seen this season, had the last laugh and pounded Katy, 11-1.

Moore didn’t throw poorly. In fact, he had given up just one earned run through the first four innings with three hits, one walk and six strikeouts. Like the first time I saw him, the uncommitted junior showed advanced ability to execute all his pitches, and commanded his split-change (79-82 MPH) and sinking fastball (86-88 MPH, T89 MPH) very well. Moore went to his split-changeup the most and had full confidence throwing it in any count versus right-handers and left-handers. The righty’s breaking ball showed plus spin and the type of shape and feel that strongly suggests it could be at least an above average future offering.

But Moore ran into a big problem – a 6-5 left-handed hitting masher who cleared the batter’s eye in dead center not once but twice. In the top of the second inning, LaViolette, a Texas A&M signee, recognized a mistake curveball early and pounded it for a two-run homer. The majestic blast didn’t just put Tompkins up 2-0; it delivered confidence and energy to his teammates, too. Moore kept doing his thing until the fifth inning, when he ran into LaViolette again after getting him to hit into a double play during the second confrontation. This time, LaViolette took advantage of Moore tipping his fastball with increased effort and his heavy barrel timed a heater left up, sending another bomb over the wall in dead-center.

As LaViolette rounded the bases, the physical, imposing outfielder let out a celebratory roar and probably bruised his third base coach’s hand because of how hard he smacked it. Meanwhile, Moore glanced towards his home dugout, likely wondering why he threw that fastball. Tompkins led 5-0 and the damage was done.

I’ve seen LaViolette, who also made two sensational plays in center field and finished 3-for-4 with two homers, six RBI, three runs and a walk, a ton since the summer. The most noteworthy thing about his performance, in my opinion, wasn’t the two homers; it was how he carried himself. He stepped into the batter’s box and onto the field like he was undoubtedly the baddest dude in a uniform and he was going to mash. He was feisty, competitive, fiery and elevated his performance to meet the moment. Understand that I’m evaluating LaViolette as one of the best outfielder prospects in the nation. So, we tend to, for lack of a better word, nitpick those types of prospects because they’re so talented and in the top one percent of high school players; they’re the types of prospects MLB teams have to decide whether to pay seven-figures to out of high school.

That said, I’ve seen LaViolette carry himself sometimes like he was a 5-11 contact hitter that was more passive than aggressive. For a 6-5 outfielder with a unique blend of size, length and athleticism and intriguing power, there were games when it was too easy not to feel his presence. So, for LaViolette to confidently and energetically step onto the field in the, to that point, biggest game of the year and deliver the way he did, was a really, really loud statement; a statement that undoubtedly played well with the professional scouting community. He left no doubt he was the best player on the field by a wide margin and completely dominated on both sides of the ball. If Tompkins has the magical season it’s capable of, people will talk about LaViolette’s performance against Katy for a long time.

Make no mistake, LaViolette wasn’t the only talented standout on the field. We’ve covered Tompkins and Katy in this column previously, and a couple of usual suspects provided strong appearances. Tompkins first baseman and future Wichita State player Jack Little smoked a homer over the wall in right-center. Tyler Junior College signee Trevor Esparza threw a complete game and only gave up three hits with seven strikeouts. While Esparza, who uses his good athleticism to repeat an active delivery and hold his stuff all game, doesn’t light up the radar gun (85-87 MPH), his arm path creates deception in his delivery, and Katy hitters were repeatedly late against his heater and didn’t see his 70-71 MPH curveball well. Competitor.

If Katy is going to continue its playoff run, junior right-handed pitcher and infielder Andrew Hilton will need to play a starring role. He entered late on the mound and it was my first look: 84-86 MPH low-spin fastball with a big-breaking but soft CB and athletic delivery and quick arm; the standout weapon was a changeup, which flashed plus thanks in large part to Hilton’s ability to kill its spin.

Tomball at Bridgeland

BRIDGELAND HIGH SCHOOL – How many other states afford fans/evaluators/anyone a chance to watch a 6A playoff game that begins at 4:00 p.m. and then another one literally five minutes away that begins at 7:30 p.m.? I spent my Friday in the Cypress area and began my playoff season with Tomball at Bridgeland, which turned into a standout performance by Bridgeland right-handed starting pitcher Justin Kim.

Kim, a future Princeton Tiger, went the distance and gave up just one unearned run on three hits as Bridgeland took the opening game, 6-1. He touched 91 MPH early and sat in the 87-90 MPH range with his fastball before fatigue and muggy, hot weather conditions slowed his arm down. The right-hander, who gets the most out of his physical gifts with a quick arm, showed two different breaking ball shapes, both in the 75-77 MPH range. Poised and also competitive, Kim looked like he had the kind of makeup, fastball and control capable of making an early impact at Princeton.

Seniors Ryan Williams (Mississippi State) and Nico Fernandez (UT Dallas) broke the game open with a couple of key knocks from the left side of the plate. Fernandez’s swing has stood out both times I’ve watched Bridgeland and Williams has a patient, contact-based approach in the box to pair with some of the best defensive skill at catcher in the state.

Hitting leadoff, Miles Syptak looked like one of the most intriguing 2024 outfielders in the state. The right-handed hitting center fielder ran 3.92 seconds down the line on a bunt and hammered the ball twice, which included a double to the right center gap. Noticeably athletic with a twitchy bounce to his step and a projectable frame, Syptak possesses an all-around set of tools that could make him one of the most heavily recruited outfielders in the state. He tracked fly balls naturally, showed plus wheels, his arm looked at least average during a limited look and his bat speed and barrel feel suggest some gap-to-gap power with the occasional homer pulled.

As for Tomball, it ended up winning the next two games. So, maybe it just needed me to leave. It was good to see Chase Mora, who pitched 6.1 shutout innings the following day to force a winner-take-all game three, back at shortstop after an injury earlier in the season relegated him to designated hitter. Although he didn’t have a loud day at the plate, he made contact each time and his bat speed continues to stick out positively with some feel for cutting the swing down in two-strike counts. Top 2024 prospect and Florida commitment Cade Arrambide played third base and handled it fairly well, showcasing a big arm. Houston 2023 commitment and Tomball second baseman Alan Lopez ran 4.36 seconds down the line.

Klein Cain at Cy Ranch

CYPRESS RANCH HIGH SCHOOL – I began the preseason scrimmage schedule with a trip to Cypress Ranch and I started the postseason playoff schedule with a Friday night at the same ballpark. After seeing Cy Ranch early, it looked like a highly competitive, deep team that might lack the starpower of some nearby schools but had the right makeup to compete to win its district. Cy Ranch won its district.

Do-it-all senior, who remains uncommitted, Alex Renfrow is a big reason behind that success and I’m a bit perplexed why he hasn’t been scooped up by a collegiate program. In February, Renfrow was an energetic catcher with solid skill – Cy Ranch boasts the best catching depth of any program I saw this year – who also sat at 85 MPH on the mound with a slider that racked up five swings and misses in a short stint thanks to its four-seam-like shape and very late, short break; it almost looks like a cutter. In addition to showing the slider/cutter during an excellent outing to beat Klein Cain, Renfrow flashed an intriguing changeup to both righties and lefties along with the occasional curve.

Perhaps more importantly, Renfrow was clearly one of the leaders of a very, very successful team. He is a calm yet confident competitor who was never rattled, which included pitching out of a jam with back-to-back strikeouts and deep into the 6th inning of his team’s eventual 3-0 victory. No matter the situation, Renfrow threw strikes, trusted his stuff, and showed a promising control/command combo, which allowed his fastball to play above its radar gun reading. Very coachable player who does a lot of things to impact winning and appears to have the type of makeup that gets the most out of his talent/skill. While he doesn’t boast noteworthy physical projection or big velocity, he’s a ballplayer who can help a team in a number of ways. D2/D3 programs looking for a guy who can catch and pitch should inquire.

It was good to see 2022 Rice signee and Cy Ranch outfielder Christian Salazar back in the lineup after dealing with a back injury most of the season. Hitting in the two-hole, the right-handed hitter made contact three times, including two hard-hit balls (one rocket to deep left field that had too much topspin and found a glove). I’ve long been a fan of Salazar’s swing, instincts and makeup. He also ran down the line in 4.29 and 4.32 seconds.

Like he did when I saw him in February, 2023 Rice commitment Tobias Motley, who hits leadoff for Cy Ranch, made in-game adjustments. After striking out in his first at-bat against talented Klein Cain starter Ryan Hanks, Motley smashed a hard liner for a hit into the right-center gap and showed 4.15 time down the line to beat out a double play after hitting a very hard grounder; there remains some swing and miss in the swing but also hand strength/quickness and bat speed. Motley’s glovework looked a tick better and more confident at shortstop and his all-around skill is beginning to catch up to his promising physical projection and talent/athleticism combo.

Speaking of athletic players who can run and swing the bat, 2024 left-handed hitting outfielder Jackson Priest is going to be a D1 recruit. He can hit, run, throw and plays right field well with future center field ability for Cy Ranch once Salazar graduates. As he matures, he should show some gap-to-gap pop and is already running into the occasional big fly. Priest gets the barrel into the hitting zone quickly, tracks pitches and competes at an advanced level and will use the whole field. Recent HBU commit Joshua Ibe showed his intriguing power from the right side; the HBU staff continues to do a great job spending time on the recruiting trail.

As for Klein Cain, it was a frustrating night on the mound for right-handed starter and future Arizona State Sun Devil Ryan Hanks. The righty was up to 90 MPH and sat 86-89 MPH with inconsistent control; the curveball, his best offering, flashed occasionally, but he struggled to find the feel for it. Hanks kept his team in the game and didn’t receive any help from his defense, but he didn’t have his best stuff or strike-throwing.

It was a quiet night at the plate for the Hurricanes. UT Dallas signee Diego Martinez hit a hard liner the opposite way and showed off his wheels for a double. Right-handed hitter Kade Hanks, an uncommitted junior, looks like one to follow this summer and could be the team’s best hitter next season.

Vandegrift at Lake Travis

LAKE TRAVIS HIGH SCHOOL – In a game dominated by pitching, Lake Travis’ power-hitting first baseman Cole Johnson provided the game’s defining moment. The big, imposing right-handed hitter mashed a three-run homer over the wall in left-center field, which proved to be the only runs scored in the game. That’s because Lake Travis junior righty OJ Gonzalez did his thing. Again.

I’ve seen Gonzalez several times now, and he’s pitched himself into Five Tool 55 consideration. Undoubtedly a D1 prospect, Gonzalez didn’t have his best stuff on a day when the temperature crept into the triple digits for the first time in 2022. Still, the 6-1 righty fired a fastball 85-88 MPH (touched 89 MPH) nearly the entirety of his outing and even without his best control/command, he didn’t cross 80 pitches until the sixth inning. Interestingly, Gonzalez showed his changeup for the first time I’ve seen him and it showed enough promise as a future third pitch to use against left-handers; it’s clearly something he’s worked on.

Across 6.0 shutout innings, Gonzalez gave up just two hits, walked four and struck out four. He mixed in his slider at 73-75 MPH and continues to step up in a huge way for his team after the loss of senior right-hander Luke Jackson (elbow injury). Kaeden Kent came in to close the game, and shook to a two-strike slider with two runners in scoring position to punch LT’s ticket with a strikeout. For the first time I can recall, Kent had a quiet game with the bad – made contact every time, but didn’t reach base.

Vandegrift junior lefty Connor Freeman kept his team in the game despite working with lower velocity (77-80 MPH fastball; 67 MPH curveball) than usual. Freeman has noticeable activity/moving parts in his delivery, but also has athleticism and repeats fairly well. Given his size, length and athletic profile, he’ll be one to keep tabs on as he matures. 2023 Vandegrift catcher and Baylor commitment Brayden Buchanan had one of the few hits for Vandegrift. He pulled a hard single through the left side.

Keep an eye on 2023 Vandegrift outfielder Jackson Luhrs. The uncommitted prospect batted leadoff, hit a very hard single up the middle and showed some quick, strong hands and some bat speed from the left side. He adds leverage to his swing and although his hands are active in his load, they’re quick and strong enough to use it as a timing mechanism.

QUICK HITTERS

– Prior to seeing Tompkins versus Katy, I snuck over to Fort Bend Travis for a couple innings of its game versus Ridge Point. I saw very physical, junior outfielder Carter Groen hit a bomb to left field through a stiff wind. An uncommitted prospect, Groen does sell out some to get to the power in the swing, but he’s hit for power for a really good lineup. Speaking of that lineup, Ridge Point hit as well top-to-bottom as any team I’ve seen recently. Justin Vossos ran 4.29 down the line and 2023 DBU commit JJ Kennett continued to look the part of a promising hitter with a good barrel path along with catch-and-throw skill behind the dish defensively.

RANDOM THOUGHTS FROM THE ROAD

Happy belated Mother’s Day to all the moms out there spending countless hours at the ballpark and making sure the family is in good hands. Make sure to thank those moms and don’t take the love and time they give for granted. At the McComas house, Mom is the engine that keeps us running.

Dustin McComas
Senior Editor
Five Tool Baseball

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