HICKORY, N.C. — Grayson Greiner stands near the dugout at L.P. Frans Stadium after catching nine innings earlier this week for the USA national collegiate team and looks around, almost in amazement, at the players walking past him.
After missing out on the chance to catch for Team USA last summer, when he was still recuperating from knee surgery, he is happy wearing red, white and blue this summer.
“It’s an once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Greiner said. “I regretted having to turn it down last year, so I was thankful for the opportunity again. Now I see why. I’m playing with the 23 best players in the country. The arms we run out there are just ridiculous. It’s unbelievable for me.”
On this night, the first two pitchers he caught were N.C. State left-hander Carlos Rodon and Vanderbilt right-hander Tyler Beede, who combined to one-hit the Catawba Valley All-Stars, a summer collegiate league team based in North Carolina, over the first seven innings in a 9-2 victory. Rodon and Beede likely will be two of the first five players selected in next year’s MLB draft.
Three of the best closers in the nation also pitch on the staff — Louisville’s Nick Burdi, UCLA’s David Berg and Arizona State’s Ryan Burr.
“Carlos is lights-out,” Greiner said. “Tyler has had better stuff, but he still only gave up one hit. ... Burdi came in throwing upper 90s. Berg led the nation in saves. We’ve got the arms.”
The everyday players aren’t bad either. Some came straight from the College World Series to participate, including LSU shortstop Alex Bregman, N.C. State infielder Trea Turner, Oregon State outfielder Michael Conforto, North Carolina outfielder Skye Bolt and Indiana catcher Kyle Schwarber, who shares the catching duties with Greiner.
Under TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle, Team USA went 10-0 in the first part of its schedule against summer collegiate teams before taking off for a six-game tour in Japan, which began Friday night. The team will finish its schedule with five games against Cuba in various U.S. parks.
“I’ve played against some of these guys, and it’s cool being on their team and seeing their personalities,” Greiner said. “Coach Schloss has harped that we don’t want to be a team of All-Stars, we want to be an All-Star team. In order to play like that, we have to mesh as a team. We can’t be nine individuals on the field trying to do what’s best for us.”
Defense remains Greiner’s calling card. A solid receiver with a powerful, accurate arm, he already has stood out while playing for Team USA.
“He’s certainly an elite defensive catcher. For a guy his size to be able to do the things that he does tells you what a great athlete he is,” Schlossnagle said. “He’s only going to get stronger, and barring injury, he’s a guy you’ll get see catching in the big leagues for 15 years.”
Burr, who saved 12 games this season for the Sun Devils, likes everything he has seen from Greiner behind the plate.
“It’s a big confidence booster when you have a big guy back there who takes up the whole (strike) zone. Even if you miss by a little bit, his body still makes it look like a strike,” Burr said. “And obviously, with guys on base, he’s got a cannon for an arm. You don’t have to worry too much about guys stealing on you. He receives the ball really well. When you’re having some trouble, he’ll come out there and calm you down and give you a few quick mechanical fixes.”
Greiner’s also hoping to improve at the plate this summer. After batting .222 with six homers and 32 RBIs as a freshman, he made more consistent contact this past season for the Gamecocks while batting .298 with four homers and 38 RBIs. In four starts for Team USA, he is 5-for-13, including a 3-for-4 game with a walk and an RBI in Monday’s game, as he adjusts to using a wood bat.
“I squared up three balls and had a good at-bat on a walk, so I felt really comfortable up there,” he said. “I know it’s not the caliber of arms I’ll face in Japan or when Cuba comes over here, but I’m just trying to get my timing down and my confidence up.”
Schlossnagle was delighted to see Greiner break out with three hits.
“He’s going to have a longer swing than most guys because he’s so big. But he’s strong and only going to get stronger,” Schlossnagle said. “He’s catching in the SEC, so he’s seeing the best college baseball has to offer from a velocity standpoint.”
Greiner also hopes to embrace the cultural experience of the visit to Japan.
“I’ve rarely been out of South Carolina. I’m a homeboy,” he said. “It’s going to be a culture shock, but I love sushi. So I should be OK.”
Schlossnagle called Greiner a terrific representative for the national team.
“His best trait is that he’s an amazing young person,” Schlossnagle said.
“You meet him and he’s soft-spoken and humble. He’s a great teammate, and he’s coachable. He obviously has great parents, and he comes from a great program.”