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Petaluma teen off to hot start with national baseball team

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Joe Brown will miss the first week of his freshman year in high school. No problem.

When classes resume at Petaluma High on Wednesday, Brown, 14, will have been on his own, thousands of miles from home, for nearly a month. No problem.

He’s far from home because after shining in a two-stage tryout in North Carolina, Brown — a baseball guy since before he can remember — was named to the USA Baseball 15U national team. And as impressive as that is, try this on: He’s a full year younger than his teammates. Only one other player on the 20-man roster is his age.

Seems like for Brown, baseball at the highest level is one big, emphatic no problem.

Brown is hitting an eye-popping .800 through the team’s 10 exhibition games in Cary, North Carolina. The team is ranked No. 1 heading into their opener against China Friday in the 2018 World Baseball Softball Confederation World Cup in David, Panama.

And these results are coming from a guy who thought he wouldn’t even make the team.

“Coming in, I didn’t think I’d have a shot at all,” Brown said. Then he started to play.

“I only got out twice on Day 1 and Day 2,” he said.

His confidence grew. When the second round of cuts were made, Brown wasn’t among them. He had made the 20-player roster. One wall separated the team from those boys who had come so close.

“It was all sad, a lot of crying,” he said. But there were no tears for Brown and the other players on the roster.

“I’m trying to get a gold medal,” he said. “It would mean a lot, knowing I represented my country, I went to war for a gold medal.”

Brown is a known quantity in national-team circles. He hit .571 with three homers in nine games in the summer of 2016 when he was on the 12U team, but this summer was different.

Brown was invited to a tournament in Arizona from which he earned one of 72 invitations to the national tryouts for 15-year-olds and younger in North Carolina. And remember, Brown should be playing 14U, but was pulled up to the next age bracket.

Brown and Karson Bowen of Anaheim Hills are the only two players who were moved from 14U to 15U.

“He’s a full year ahead and at the highest level you can be at,” said Joey Gomes, manager of the Healdsburg Prune Packers and the 16U team manager for USA Baseball Northern California. “That’s what makes it even more huge, that a kid from Sonoma County is competing for a gold medal at his age.

“Joe Brown is not even in high school yet.”

Over the last 10 games, Brown faced three pitchers who throw faster than 90 mph, Gomes said. Think, say, Madison Bumgarner. He’s hit them all.

“He is not only facing the top 10 pitchers in America, he’s excelling against those type of arms,” Gomes said.

While Brown’s bat is what is grabbing the most attention, Gomes said he’s a talent in the field, too.

“Don’t sleep on his defense. He’s a lock-down defender,” he said. “A lot of the defense gets overshadowed because of how consistent his bat is.”

Brown can typically be found at catcher or third or second. Or anywhere. Just put him in the game, he said.

Gomes, who began working with an 11-year-old Brown as his hitting coach, likens him to a young Andrew Vaughn. You know, the Maria Carrillo grad who just won the Golden Spikes Award after his sophomore year at Cal.

“He will literally show up a half hour early, just to listen to me talk to the group before his,” he said. “That stuff doesn’t go away. It’s built in and nobody coaches that.”

Brown’s call-up makes him the third Sonoma County player to play for USA Baseball this summer. Vaughn was on the Team USA collegiate national team that just went 12-3. He was joined by Casa Grande grad, Arizona State rising sophomore, NCAA home run king and Collegiate Baseball Newspaper’s Co-Freshman of the year, Spencer Torkelson.

I’ve said this here before, but holy cow, Sonoma County.

“Literally, the guys on his team are future major league players,” Gomes said of the 15U squad. “This is the team that Bryce Harper was on. Francisco Lindor was on this team. Buster Posey was on this team.”

So forgive Brown if he’s OK spending a month away from home. And forgive him if he’s not too bothered about missing his high school orientation and the first week of his freshman year. He has a pretty good excuse and the letter explaining his absence is pretty solid.

“The USA team had to write a letter to the school telling them where I’m going to be and why I’m going to miss the first week,” Brown said.

Team USA opens the tournament Friday against China. On Saturday, the U.S. will play Germany, followed by Chinese Tapei on Sunday. From there, it’s Brazil and Panama before games get shuffled according to results. The final game is scheduled for Aug. 19.

“It’s kind of crazy because there could be up to 8,000 people at our games,” he said. “It’s a big crowd, a lot of adrenaline, playing for the United States and playing for a gold medal.”

But for Joe Brown? No problem.