Clifton, Team USA win gold at world championships

Heritage High School junior Trevor Clifton, second from right, arrives from Mexico with his family at McGhee Tyson Airport on Monday. With Clifton are, left to right, sister, Kiara; father, Dennis; sister, Kaziah; and mother, Betsy.

Photo by Jenifer Clark

Heritage High School junior Trevor Clifton, second from right, arrives from Mexico with his family at McGhee Tyson Airport on Monday. With Clifton are, left to right, sister, Kiara; father, Dennis; sister, Kaziah; and mother, Betsy.

Trevor Clifton, right, poses with USA Baseball teammate Jordan Sheffield of Tullahoma.

Trevor Clifton, right, poses with USA Baseball teammate Jordan Sheffield of Tullahoma.

The Chicago Cubs have called.

The St. Louis Cardinals have let Heritage High School junior Trevor Clifton know they’ll be tracking his progress this season and next as well.

Clifton touched down at McGhee Tyson Airport on Monday a young man whose star is in full ascendancy. The 6-foot-4, 190-pound Mountaineer right-hander was back on home soil after helping the USA Baseball junior national team to the gold medal at the IBAF World 16-under Youth Championships in Lagos de Moreno, Mexico.

Clifton struck out seven, surrendering one earned run, to score a 13-4 win over the Netherlands during the tournament, but that’s not the thing that will bring college and professional scouts to Heritage in big numbers this spring. Clifton, 16, is that rare teenager who can throw a baseball 90 mph — 93, to be exact, a mark he’s hit twice this summer.

And Clifton is a young 16.

“He could be a sophomore,” Heritage coach Robbie Bennett said. “It’s going to be different next year because there are going to be a lot of scouts coming to watch him play. I’m excited for him. I’m excited for Heritage.”

Throwing a third of an inning in relief, Clifton compiled a 1.69 earned run average for the tournament, fanning eight and issuing four walks. In his only plate appearance, he doubled to drive in a pair of runs.

Team USA would go 7-1 during the championships overall, blanking favored Cuba, 9-0, in Sunday’s title game.

“I was really excited to go down there and play for the USA,” Clifton said, “but I was glad to come home and sleep in my own bed.”

Clifton was one of only 38 high school players nationally to receive an invitation to the weeklong, 16-under trials at USA Baseball’s headquarters in Cary, N.C., last month. The roster was trimmed to a final 20 players for the trip to Mexico, with Clifton and Tullahoma right-hander Jordan Sheffield the only selections from Tennessee.

California garnered the most selections of any state with seven, with Florida next best with five.

His first pitch in the start against the Netherlands was a strike, “right down the middle,” Clifton said. “I just tried to zone in and tune everything out.”

Inclusion on such a team is his fondest memory of the week spent south of the border, Clifton said. That mindset can only benefit the Mountaineers as a team come spring.

“When he’s confident, he’s about unhittable,” Bennett said. “I think he’s come back from this with a different mentality. He knows he’s that good.”

Clifton plays his summer baseball with Brooklyn, N.Y.-based powerhouse Bergen Beach. It was Bergen Beach coach Steve Bort who recommended Clifton for the national team tryouts. Bort doesn’t mince words when talking of the potential the Mountaineer ace possesses.

“He has a tremendous upside,” Bort said. “He’s 6-4, 190, and he throws a baseball 93 mph, and he’s competitor. He’s full of energy, and he wants it real bad. There aren’t many guys that are 6-4 that can throw 90.”

Clifton already projects as an early round selection in the Major League Baseball amateur draft in a couple of year’s time, said Bort, who’s Bergen Beach roster through the years has included the likes of New York Yankees shortstop Alex Rodriguez and Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton.

You have to be careful with a pitcher who throws as hard as Clifton, Bort said. Major League flamethrower Kerry Wood had the same velocity as a high school player as Clifton displays, he said. Bort said he remembers cringing when he heard of Wood pitching both parts of a doubleheader for his high school team.

After hearing how Bennett has handled Clifton his first two seasons at Heritage, Bort said the young phenom couldn’t be in better hands.

“When a kid throws that hard, he has to worry about an arm injury,” Bort said. “You’ve got to watch his pitches.”

Despite a breakout summer by Clifton a year ago, Bennett brought his emerging prospect along carefully last spring and has no intentions of altering that approach for the 2012 season.

“At Heritage, we’re never going to overthrow a kid,” Bennett said. “They’re not going to throw 15 innings in a week. We really put a lot into our arm care and soft-toss program. You can look at any of our pitchers the last decade, we’re going to rest a kid, especially when he’s throwing that hard. (Clifton) didn’t throw 30 innings this (past) spring.”

The rest, Bort said, will take care of itself.

“The only thing important about this year, as far as the major league draft goes, is don’t get hurt,” he said.

Some of his most vivid memories of his trip to Mexico happened away from the baseball diamond, Clifton said. There was Carlos, or “Carlito,” a young local kid who hung around the hotel and became Team USA’s batboy for the trip.

“He got in the dog pile with us” after the championship game, Clifton said.

When you’re hungry, there isn’t always a McDonald’s on every corner. Then, Clifton said, there’s the deepest cut of all.

A long-standing tradition when international teams of any sport play each other is the exchanging of jerseys and other personal memorabilia. The most coveted item by Team USA during the world championships was the warm up jackets worn by Team China.

Some heavy-duty bartering withstanding, no one from Team USA could land one. As the team sat down to dinner one night, Clifton’s younger sister, Kiara, showed them all what you can do with just a smile.

“They said, ‘Where’d you get that!’” Kiara said. “I said, ‘He just gave it to me.’”

When the Cliftons, which included mom, Betsy, dad, Dennis, and sister, Kaziah, returned to their rooms, Kiara gave the jacket to Trevor.

Not a bad trade when you consider what her older brother’s net worth might be in the not too distant future.

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