Before heading off to Notre Dame on a full baseball scholarship next fall, St. Joseph-Metuchen standout Brandon Bielak is stopping off on the West Coast and then taking a trip to the Big Apple.
Bielak is one of seven players with New Jersey ties competing in this year’s Area Code Baseball Games, presented by New Balance, which got underway Monday at Blair Field in Long Beach, Calif.
The Area Code Games provide college and professional scouts the opportunity to view some of the nation’s top baseball talent all at one location. The teams are divided into eight squads based on their geographic location. The eight teams include the White Sox (consisting of players mostly from the Midwest), Reds (four-corner states and Hawaii), Royals (Pacific Northwest), Brewers (Southern California), Yankees (Northeast), Athletics (Northern California), Rangers (Texas, Louisiana) and Nationals (Southeast, Virginia).
The seven players from New Jersey are playing for the New York Yankees squad.
“It’s a total honor to be out here,” Bielak said. “The flight was long — six-hour flight — but I’ll bear that any day.”
The Yankees’ first game was Tuesday morning against the Chicago White Sox squad and the game was streamed live on ESPN3.com where viewers saw the Sox topple the Yanks 5-2. Bielak said there was at least 150 scouts behind home plate.
Bielak was the only Yankees pitcher to not surrender a run. He tossed two innings of scoreless ball, striking out two and walking one.
“The first batter I faced was a little nerve-wracking, but I settled in after that,” Bielak said. “Any chance you get to be on TV it’s awesome. Anytime a news camera is around you want to try and get your face in the background. It’s a great experience. All the coaches said I did well and I thank them for the opportunity.”
“It’s a great honor for him, but also to give the school some recognition is incredible,” said St. Joseph baseball coach Steve Bucchignano. “You’re talking about the best players in the country, and for him to be able to battle through an injury this year is a true testament to how hard he works and is why he’s recognized as one of the best players in the state.”
Bielak, who’ll likely be selected in next June’s Major League Baseball Draft, has another showcase on his agenda this summer. He’ll play for the New York Mets scout team in the Metropolitan Baseball Classic, an eight-team tournament that will take place in New York over Labor Day weekend.
Bielak required a tryout at Brooklyn Cyclones MCU Park on July 24.
“I got a call from a Mets scout named Jim Thompson who told me I’d made the team,” Bielak said.
Every team is guaranteed four games with pool play between two groups of four teams and then a championship game, a third-place game, a fifth-place game and a seventh-place game. Each team will play at least one game at Citi Field, but games will also take place at MCU Park and at St. John’s Jack Kaiser Stadium.
For the Mets, the tournament allows their staff to become more familiar with the players, and the players and their families to become more familiar with the organization. The Mets can learn more about the players’ makeup and can perform various tests, if they choose, on some of 2014’s top prospects.
“There’s no tournaments going on during that time and it’ll be a nice warmup for Jupiter,” Mets scouting director Tommy Tanous said. “We want to do it first-class. It’s going to be a really positive experience for the kids.”
This past season, Bielak, a Sayreville native, battled through a stress fracture in his right foot to earn Home News Tribune All-Area Second-Team honors. A hard-throwing right-hander with a tremendous breaking ball, Bielak finished 3-2 with a 1.62 ERA in 34.2 innings and struck out 39 compared to just 10 walks. At the plate, the utility infielder batted .404 with a homer, 16 RBI and posted a .541 on-base percentage.
“It (the season) was frustrating, but at the end of the day I still had high confidence,” said Bielak. “I spent a lot of time acting as a player-coach and rooting on my teammates. I’m fully healthy now though.”
Bielak enjoyed similar success during an entirely healthy sophomore campaign in 2012. The 6-2, 175-pounder went 5-1 with a 1.37 ERA and struck out 51 batters while issuing just 19 free passes in 51 innings of work. He batted .344 with 15 RBI and had a .422 on-base percentage.
According to Bucchignano however, Bielak is much more than a superior baseball talent.
“He’s a phenomenal kid, hardworking, great in the classroom and a leader on the field,” he said. “His parents deserve all the credit in the world. They raised their kids the right way and taught them about having respect and dedication and to set goals and attain them.
“A lot of people see what he does on the field, but I’m fortunate to see what he does off the field,” Bucchignano added. “He really puts the time in and wants to be the best. There are kids who talk about it and kids that be about it and he’s the be about it type. He’s very receptive to learning and taking in what people say to try to improve him and you don’t see too many kids like that.”
Coincidentally, former Immaculata standout Luke Bonfield — who’s transferring to the IMG Academy in Florida for his senior year — is also competing in the games.
A Courier News All-Area First-Team selection this past spring, the Somerville native batted .375 with five home runs and 36 RBI for the Somerset County Tournament finalist, and also had five doubles and a triple and scored 21 runs scored. Bonfield walked 13 times, slugged .650 and had an on-base percentage of .448.
The other players from New Jersey competing in the games are Andrew DiPiazza (Central Regional), Bryan Dobzanski (Delsea), Joseph Gatto (St. Augustine), Liam Sabino (Blair) and Devin Smeltzer (Bishop Eustace).
The only other player from Middlesex or Somerset County to compete in the Area Code Games before this year’s event was South Plainfield’s Brandon Downes in 2011. Downes, who’s currently entering his junior year at the University of Virginia, was a 43rd round draft selection by the Boston Red Sox in 2011.
The Yankees’ schedule for the week is as follows: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday vs. the Washington Nationals; 2:30 p.m. Thursday vs. the Kansas City Royals; 3 p.m. Friday vs. the Oakland Athletics; and 11:30 a.m. Saturday vs. the Cincinnati Reds.