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By the time they’re teenagers, Cal Ripken baseball players who this month participated in the 8U State Tournament at Glander Fields will be running 90 feet between bases. For now, the distance between the bases remains the same at 60 feet, but these up-and-coming sluggers are taking a big step toward that full-size field future.
This is the first time batters are facing pitching from a player rather than a coach or machine. It is also the first time they are taking to the mound and throwing strikes. The tournament is their introduction to umpires and rules, including balls and strikes.
“It’s one thing to do it in practice,” Newtown Naturals Manager Okan Akbas said. “When it comes to game situations, it’s a fear of failure. They’re worried they’ll strike out.”
There is also that element of the possibility of getting hit by a pitch after digging into the batter’s box to face an opposing pitcher. Machines and coaches throw predictably accurately and at a consistent speed. Some new-to-toeing-the-rubber hurlers have to work on accuracy. It is all part of the learning process.
“Our challenge as coaches is to get them to be aggressive, to know the strike zone, and to be a hitter,” Akbas said.
“Playing kid-pitch baseball took a while for the 8 year olds to adjust, both from the perspective of a pitcher trying to throw strikes to a batter for the first time, and from the vantage point of a batter facing a kid pitcher, rather than a coach or a pitching machine.
“And since this was the first year Newtown has had an official Cal Ripken District tournament travel team at the 8-year-old level, I knew that if we hoped to compete, we had to have a very deep pitching staff, since 8-year-olds’ daily pitching limits are much less than the older age groups, and of course are very prone to throwing balls and not strikes due to their inexperience,” Akbas added. “Therefore, I made sure to instruct all the boys in pitching drills in almost every practice, and as a result, almost every player on the team is able to pitch when necessary, which is vital for a coach on a travel baseball team — there can never be enough pitchers who can throw strikes.”
The 8U mound is 46 feet from home plate, and with the bases 60 feet apart, it is referred to as a 46-60 field.
The next step through age 11 is a season or two on 50-70 fields, followed by 60-90 baseball for 13-year-olds. They will play on those regulation-sized fields for the rest of their careers.
Akbas is going through this process for the third time, first with his sons Logan, 12, and Brandon, 14 — both of whom also are competing in state tournaments this summer — and now with Ian, 8.
“My objective is to get them better from a fundamental standpoint, from the beginning of the season to the end, and also from a baseball IQ perspective,” Akbas said.
The improving hitters and pitchers are learning about competition as they hone skills.
The Newtown Naturals, after losing to Danbury, defeated Easton and Stratford, then fell to New Canaan in the double-elimination tourney.
Akbas is assisted by coaches Mark Caron, Lenny Laughlin, and Sean O’Neil. The team comprises players Ian Akbas, Antonio Arguello, Sean Caron, Cooper Costallos, Evan DePasquale, Brooks Fischer, Kieran Frieary, Henry Laughlin, Parker Leonard, Luke Libero, Liam O’Neil, and Aron Roman.