Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tago Has The Talent To Be Terrific

Peter Tago gingerly flipped the baseball from the pocket of his glove to the palm of his right hand. Much was at stake at the moment, but Tago carried himself like an old pro, not a nervous high school pitcher. He had runners on first and second with two out and the score tied in the seventh inning of his last regular-season home game. Pitching in front of about 20 scouts with their radar guns trained on him and in a must-win game for his team to advance to the playoffs, Tago was as smooth as his delivery. He stood in the sunshine and flashed a playful grin. He wanted to give his team, Dana Point (Calif.) Hills, the best chance to win. And he wanted to give the scouts what they were looking for one more time.

Tago, whose velocity remained in the 90s through all seven innings, threw a 91-mph fastball for strike one. He fired a 92-mph fastball for strike two, and then snapped off a hard 74-mph curveball to elicit a ground ball for the third out of the inning. Tago gave the scouts what they wanted, and his team gave him what he wanted, a victory rally in the bottom of the seventh.

The combination of stamina, tenacity and competitiveness - not to mention a fastball that has been clocked as high as 97 mph - has made the 6-foot-4 right-hander perhaps the best and most consistent high school pitcher in Southern California this spring. It also may make Tago, ranked No. 29 in the RivalsHigh Top 50 prospects for the Class of 2010, a first-round pick in June's Major League Draft.

"The kids who can maintain velocity deep into games are the ones with the true quality high school arms," said one Major League scouting director, speaking on condition of anonymity - a standard in the profession. "To see a kid that deep into a game throw 91-92 for strikes and snap off a curveball is what separates high first-round guys. He's been better from the summer to the fall to the spring and I think that's why you're seeing his national stock increase. He's going to be somebody's first-round pick."

His readings on a radar gun aren't the only thing that makes Tago different from other high schoolers.

There's also his heritage, a past that makes his future distinct.

Tago is Samoan and Filipino by birth. And while most Samoan athletes gravitate towards football - only one player born in American Samoa has ever made the majors - Tago is all baseball.

"It was always baseball for me," he said. "I loved it from the start."


Peter's mother, Joanne, is Filipino. And quite an athlete in her own right. After an impressive career as a high school volleyball player at Torrance (Calif.) Bishop Montgomery, she became an All-American setter at Northern Arizona University.

Peter was born in Harbor City, Calif. His biological father was of Samoan decent. When Peter was 2, his mother married Frank Tago, a native of Hawaii who also was Samoan.

Peter grew up in Carson, a region heavily populated by Pacific Islanders, where community, faith, sports and heritage are tightly connected. It was there that baseball became his calling.

"He tried flag football," Frank Tago - himself a former college football player - said. "He liked it, but you could tell it wasn't like baseball for him."

Samoan baseball players are so rare that when Tago began facing players from different parts of the country, some thought he was from the Dominican Republic. Tony Solaita, a power-hitting first baseman for five teams over 11 seasons ending in 1979, is the most noteworthy of a handful of players with Samoan heritage who have played in the majors. None, however, were as highly regarded a draft prospect as Tago.

The journey to this point has been a circuitous one.

The family moved to Bellflower, a suburb of Long Beach, where he played Little League. The family later moved to Dana Point so Tago could follow a travel coach to Dana Hills High.

His progression on the mound required the same amount of effort.

As a high school freshman, Tago was only 5-10. And while he discovered he had the arm speed to throw 90 mph by the time he was 14, he also recognized that he had to develop his talents.

"My mechanics were horrible," Tago said. "I knew early on that I was going to be able to throw hard, but at the time I was just all over the place."

Frank Tago is quick to praise his son's progression on and off the field.

"He wasn't the person or the player he is now," Frank said. "It's something he has put forward since day one. He knows where he's at now. That work ethic is all him."


Tago was in the weight room the day before his final high school start. It's not an isolated event. Scouts have noted Tago's physical development from the end of his junior year to the end of his senior year.

Then there are his mechanics. He worked to find a consistent arm slot and release point for all his pitches. He worked on his abdominal core strength to improve his balance and coordination.

Tago's fastball velocity improved from 90-91 mph as a junior to 91-93 in the summer. This spring, Tago took the next step. He elevated his fastball velocity to 94-95 on his best days and generally pitched between 92-94. He hit 97 for the first time this spring. Scouts project more velocity in the coming years, based on Tago's wiry frame that scouting reports indicate is far from physical maturity.

"I started picking up my velocity and learning how to control it," Tago said. "If I need to, I'll take something off just to hit a spot. Then there are times when you need to be able to hump up and beat a guy."

Scouts believe the depth and quality of Tago's secondary pitches also have improved.

In August, he threw his hard slider at 86-87 mph at the Aflac all-star game - one of the top summer games in California - but had trouble consistently controlling it. He went with a true curveball this spring, throwing it with hard shape and bite at 75-77 mph. Tago also throws a change-up that has deception and sink, which might become his best off-speed pitch as a professional. He envisions himself as a durable, innings-eating workhorse in the coming years.

"I see myself as a mid-to-high 90s guy throwing complete games in the major leagues," Tago said. "I like to get as deep into games as I can and I like to finish as many of them as I can."
Scouts have taken note of Tago's ability to carry his team.

"One thing about him is the ability to execute a pitch deep into a game," the scouting director said.

"That shows both arm strength and competitiveness. He's got a warrior's mentality and you can tell the kids around him really feed off that. That's a quality staff aces tend to have. In our business, it's difficult to find players who care as much about winning as they do about themselves. When you talk to the minor league instructors, the first thing they'll ask scouts is, 'what kind of guys are you sending us?' When you make a substantial investment in a player, you hope you're getting a quality individual as well as a quality player."

When Tago hit 97 earlier this spring, he came back on short rest to pitch seven innings for Dana Hills in a tournament game, reflecting a pitcher who was willing to put his team in front of his draft status.

"I think that just becomes part of you," Tago said. "Some of it comes from facing really good hitters over the summer. It's who can compete the best in terms of execution and mental toughness, but I also see myself as a team leader. I'm just a team guy overall. I'm more concerned with winning than I am about my individual stats or anything like that."

Frank Tago smiled when he heard the comment.

"He takes after his mother like that," he said. "She's very competitive."


When Tago walked off the field that afternoon, it represented more than the end of another game. It was another father-son moment.

Long before he became a potential first-round pick, Tago discovered the value of his family, who supported him on an unconventional journey. He never had a relationship with his biological father, but he found a father figure in Frank, who sought to instill work ethic, respect, pride and humility into a child he treated as his own.

"He's always been my Dad and we were always a family," Peter Tago said. "My parents never pushed me to play anything other than what I wanted to play. If I needed a new bat or a new glove or new cleats, they always made sure I had what I needed."

It started with Frank being the role model Peter needed.

"He always knew I wasn't his biological Dad, but from like a year after I met him he called me Dad," Frank Tago said. "It was never a big deal in our family. I'm just Pops."

When scouts began asking about Frank Tago about Peter's background, Frank explained his family's story without hesitation. He modestly deflects attention from himself.

"I give all the credit to Peter," Frank said. "He's always so polite. He has consideration for others. Peter knows how to present himself. I tell scouts, 'That's my son. Either you want him or you don't. He's a normal teenage kid who does normal teenage things.'"

Tago may be a normal teen, but put him on the mound and you'll be hard pressed to find a major-league team who wouldn't want to call him their own.

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