WINTER GARDEN Jay Welsh knew the players who are leading his Winter Garden Squeeze in batting average and hits (Cody Burgess), RBIs (Tyler Halstead) and runs scored and stolen bases (Kyle Corbin) long before they arrived for the team’s first day of practice this summer.
Welsh, who is in his first season as the manager of the Florida Collegiate Summer League franchise, knew Burgess, Halstead and Corbin back when they were suiting up in Little League.
Nearly a decade later, the hot bats of the locally- based trio — Halstead and Corbin graduated from Olympia High while Burgess is a West Orange alumnus — have helped to propel Winter Garden (8-6) to a strong start to the summer that has the third-year FCSL franchise having already matched its win-total from 2015 and tied for second place in the standings.
And, although increasing the number of players with local ties was always part of the plan when Welsh and Squeeze General Manager Adam Bates sat down to discuss their vision for the team, the way things have come together for Winter Garden in the first quarter of the 2016 campaign has been a pleasant surprise.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Welsh said. “These kids love coming to the ballpark.”
For Burgess, who played for the Squeeze in 2015 as the club limped through an otherwise forgettable season, the leap from cellar-dweller to contender has been a nice change of pace.
“Last year, it was really tough,” said Burgess, whose .392 batting average and 20 hits lead the team. “Me, being the person I am, I hate losing. … This year, it’s been a lot of fun winning. We can compete with any team out there.”
While Burgess is readying for a transition from Polk State to Florida Southern, Halstead is excited just to be playing baseball at the college level again — and making the most of it, too.
After beginning his career at West Florida, the former Titan saw his time with the Argos cut short after an injury. Lots of hard work along the road back for Halstead has led to an opportunity to play again, this time for Winthrop — an opportunity Welsh and the Squeeze have helped to facilitate.
“We got word to Winthrop that this kid is the real deal,” Welsh said of Halstead. “They fell in love with him and offered him a spot.”
Although Halstead is looking forward to the opportunity at Winthrop, he said being on the field for the Squeeze has been therapeutic in its own way.
“I can’t tell you how much I missed (playing baseball),” Halstead said.
While Halstead has led the team in RBIs (10) this summer, another former Titan is the most likely player on the Winter Garden roster to find his way home. Kyle Corbin, who will be a junior at Bethune-Cookman this fall, leads the Squeeze in runs scored (10) — a stat he has helped to create with his ability to steal bases (eight).
“Winning begets winning. They’re in that atmosphere (now).”
— Jay Welsh, manager
“(Coach Welsh) is letting me run — I’ve got the green light all the time,” Corbin said.
Although Corbin’s speed is the first thing that may strike onlookers at a Winter Garden game, the left fielder is a well-rounded ballplayer with tons of potential, the way Welsh tells it.
“(Corbin is) a kid that has probably the best tools on the team in terms of the total game,” Welsh said. “He’s a five-tool type of kid.”
In a league whose primary focus is rooted in self-interest — college players come to improve their game as individuals over the summer, often with pro scouts in attendance — winning and being competitive can help to establish a team camaraderie during the two-month season. The early success being experienced by the Squeeze, along with the built-in network of locally based players, has led to a positive energy in the clubhouse so far this summer.
Turns out, winning can do that.
“It’s night and day,” Welsh said. “Winning begets winning. They’re in that atmosphere (now).”
Contact Steven Ryzewski at [email protected].