Kurtis Horne, of Sooke, B.C., stood on the top of the best mound he's ever been on, toed the Major League-quality rubber, looked in for the sign and threw his first pitch to Gareth Morgan.
Par for the course when you bring 220 of the best youth prospects from across Canada to the Rogers Centre for Tournament 12, a four-day tournament running to Tuesday night. Most are college eligible, though a "futures" team of players as young as 14 is also involved.
Divided into 10 teams representing Canadian regions, the event sees each batter go to the plate with a 1-1 count, and the games are strictly two hours, even if tied.
Hosted by the Toronto Blue Jays, the inaugural Tournament 12 (named for the number made famous by Hall of Famer, and event chair, Roberto Alomar) has attracted pro and college scouts from all over North America.
They gather in groups with stopwatches, binoculars and serious gaze to put names and stats to live players for the 2014 Major League Draft, or those hoping to grab a scholarship to continue school.
Horne, a six-foot-five left-handed pitcher from just outside Victoria, and Morgan, a six-foot-four outfielder who grew up in North York, Ont., are the top-ranked prospects at the tournament, and Saturday was the first time the national junior teammates had faced each other.
Back and forth battle
This one started the Westerner's way, as Horne, being careful with the power hitter, worked the count full (in three pitches, remember) before going right at him with a mid-80's fastball that Morgan could only look at.
Next time up in the third, the B.C. pitcher had given up a pair of runs on a double to Braden Johnston before facing Morgan who sent a hard grounder to short that turned into a throwing error, putting the hitter on base.
Horne got out of that with his fourth strikeout and would eventually post three innings pitched, three hits, two earned runs, those four Ks and a walk.
Morgan, for the game, went 1-for-4, the key knock a two-run single in the top of the seventh as his Ontario Green beat light-hitting B.C Orange 6-1.
"It's great to play against a teammate," said the big outfielder, currently the top-ranked prospect in Canada for next year's draft, as assessed by Bob Elliott's Canadian Baseball Network website. "We were kind of laughing at the beginning but then it's competition so you go out there and battle it out.
"That first at-bat was like a throwaway at-bat - a terrible at-bat on my part. But the second I fouled off some pitches, got a solid piece of him but it went to the shortstop."
Ranked No. 3 by CBN for 2014, Horne has been in the limelight back home for some years now, especially since hitting six-feet-tall at just 13 years old.
Wherever he goes now, people take notice.
"It's something I've adjusted to," says the quiet 17-year-old, sitting in the dugout usually occupied by the Blue Jays, as Friday's workouts went on around him. "You get used to throwing in front of scouts a lot, and having a lot of scouts there talking to you."
With the help of his family, Horne says the key is to stay grounded.
"I don't want to get ahead of myself, or anything."
Baseball Canada, through government support and extensive fundraising efforts, is able to identify talent early across the nation and send it off to camps and events such as Tournament 12 on a regular basis.
That helps the young players become accustomed to higher pressures and expectations, says Jim Baba, the organization's director general.
"I think with young guys [like Horne and Morgan] both have national experience already," he says. "Kurtis was with the national junior team - he didn't make the final roster. Gareth has been with us for three or four years.
"They are put in spotlight performances all the time."
Horne has been to camps in the Dominican Republic and Florida, plus the junior team's final tryout in Australia before this summer's world championships in Thailand.
Morgan played in those worlds, while Horne is expected to be a key contributor as the team prepares this fall and spring in Florida for the next world qualifiers in summer of 2014.
"Throughout the whole year, there's probably 50-75 days [of workouts and games] so it's a pretty good extensive national team program," says Baba.
Alomar, who won two World Series with the Blue Jays during his long big league career, believe events like Tournament12 are very different from when he was young and growing up in Puerto Rico.
"You have to realize when I went to a tryout, when I was 16 years old ... we only had one opportunity," he says. "You'd have 500 kids and one opportunity to be seen.
"Now, it's much easier. [Here], you have four games, you have 10 teams, they play each other four times ... there's also more opportunities to play the game."
Asked if he put extra pressure on himself as he gets closer to a decision on his future, Horne paused and considered his answer carefully.
"I've learned how to control myself. I'm getting better at controlling my thoughts and my emotions when I pitch, and I'm able to slow the game down now, not let myself get ahead of who I'm pitching to, or the next pitch.
"So I just work pitch to pitch and hope it goes well."
Right now, the plan for Horne is to see how high he goes in the June pro draft, and then decide from there whether to go college or professional.
Until then, he'll just go out and have fun on the mound.
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