WASHINGTON -- Hours before the Nationals and Twins were set to clash on Saturday, a group of smaller competitors took to the Nationals Park field, seeking to advance to next month's All-Star Game in New York.
As part of Major League Baseball's Pitch, Hit & Run Program, presented by Scotts, 24 boys and girls ages 7-14 showed their skills in those three categories. The winner in each age and gender group was recognized on the field before the Nationals' game and will have a chance to move on to the National Finals at the All-Star Game at Citi Field. Out of all the winners from competitions held through the end of the month at each of 30 big league parks, only the top three scorers in each division will get that opportunity.
"It is a competition, and kids are competing from their local Little League and making it all the way to the All-Star Game, potentially," said Pitch, Hit & Run's Scott Jones, who coordinated the event. "So it truly is a challenge coming from that grassroots level and making it all the way to the bigs, if you will. It's an interesting journey for these kids. I just think it's cool that MLB allows kids to participate in something like this and allows them to do what that their big league heroes get to do. That's a cool experience."
The boys and girls who participated on Saturday already made it through two rounds of competition to get there. That earned them the chance to show their stuff on the same field where the pros ply their trade.
"It's an amazing feeling," said Jack Darden, who won the 13-14 year-old boys division. "It's a great sensation, being out on a big league field."
The event consisted of three parts. First came the running, with competitors timed as they ran one-by-one around a 160-foot section of the warning track. Next came the pitching, which gave the kids six chances to hit a strike-zone target. Last was the hitting, with included three swings off a tee, with scores awarded based on a combination of on-the-fly distance and accuracy along a straight line.
Every competitor earned a score for each event, and those were combined for the overall standings.
Considering the event's big-time surroundings, past experience at this stage of the competition was helpful for some. Darden and his sister, Libby, who won the 13-14 year-old girls division, both have made it all the way to the National Finals before, with Jack winning the 11-12 year-old division two years ago in Phoenix.
"You can definitely tell the veterans that have done this before," Jones said. "They all have a different reaction. Some of the little kids are super intimidated, super quiet, but they make friends quickly with the other kids that are around them. Some kids kind of bottle it up and focus and put everything into their effort and their game. So they handle the stress differently."
One first-timer was Dakota Hansen, who won the top spot in the 11-12 year-old girls division. She was there with her father, Guy, a longtime coach and scout in the Royals and Braves organizations who served two stints as Kansas City's pitching coach.
"It felt pretty good to be out there," Dakota Hansen said. "I was excited."
The day's other winners were Emily Atorick (7-8 girls), Payton Monahan (9-10 girls), Samuel Vandrey (7-8 boys), Brett Allen (9-10 boys) and Nick Biddison (11-12 boys).
Biddison, another former national champion, was looking ahead not only to an All-Star Game experience in New York, but also to several more years down the road. Many Pitch, Hit & Run alumni have gone on to be drafted by Major League organizations, including Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer and Twins outfielder Chris Parmelee.
"It's fun," Biddison said. "Hopefully I'll be back playing here when I get older."