Reaching, you might be able to imagine the time Brandon Wood was replaced by a designated hitter while starting at shortstop his freshman year at Horizon High. It seems so farfetched now.
Wood has graduated into the most rare of major league prospects, a middle infielder with legitimate home run power.
"Any time you can get RBI production out of your shortstop and second baseman, you are way ahead of the game,’’ said Team USA manager Davey Johnson, who would know — he had 43 homers as a second baseman for Atlanta in 1973.
Wood has one of Team USA’s five homers and has shown his two-way skills as the U.S. clinched a berth in the 2006 Americas Olympic qualifying tournament in Havana, Cuba, the last week of August with a 7-4 victory over Nicaragua on Thursday at Maryvale Baseball Park.
The U.S. hit two more homers Thursday, Brendan Harris’ two-run homer propelling the Americans to their third straight victory in the CONCEBE Olympic pre-qualifier being played in the Valley, a six-team roundrobin event that will qualify the top four finishers for Havana.
Team USA (3-0) is assured of advancing since Guatemala (0-3) can not make up enough ground in its final two games and either Mexico (1-2) or Nicaragua (1-2) will finish with three losses since they play each other on the final day of competition Saturday.
"You are looking at the best young talent we have," USA general manager Bob Watson said.
Count Wood, 20, among the best of the best.
He has generated 58 home runs this season — 43 at Class A Rancho Cucamonga in the Los Angeles Angels’ organization and an Arizona Fall Leaguerecord 14 — while continuing his good work in the field.
Wood homered and drove in four runs against Guatemala in the first game of the qualifier Tuesday, then took a single away from Mexico’s Manuel Velez on a stop and throw behind second base Wednesday. He had one of the U.S.’s nine hits Thursday.
"He has a quick bat and a lot of pop," Johnson said. "He’s had a phenomenal year. He has a real good approach and is a hard worker. He is going to be a good one."
Team USA pitching coach Marcel Lachemann, a former major league manager with the Angels, agrees.
"He’s a very impressive kid. As well as he swings the bat, I’ve probably been more impressed with him in the infield. He just has a great feel for fielding. He has a nice, quick release. He has an accurate arm," Lachemann said.
"I love the way he goes after a ground ball. I think he is going to be an outstanding infielder."
Wood still treats defense with the mind-set of a serious middle infielder.
"One thing I don’t want to be labeled as is someone who is good at the plate but you are not really sure where you are going to put him," Wood said.
"Defense is what got me a job as a high school freshman. To be honest with you, I get more upset making an error than I ever do at the plate. Everybody is going to make an out. You can’t hit the ball hard all the time.
"But you want to make plays for your pitcher. He is working hard, and you don’t want to be giving up outs and hurting the job he is doing."
Wood, a No. 1 draft choice in 2003, developed his power this season after hitting 16 homers in his first two minor league seasons. He credited mechanical work with Angels roving hitting instructor Ty Van Burkleo and Rancho Cucamonga hitting coach James Rowson.
"It’s hard to say that you don’t have it in the back of your mind that you are going to drive the ball out of the park, but you can’t be thinking that," Wood said.
"You just have to try to square it up and hit it hard. I had success early and then it was just a matter of confidence. I was able to realize quickly what I was doing wrong with my swing," and correct it. "So much of it is pitch selection."
MEXICO 5, GUATEMALA 2: Roberto Ramirez limited Guatemala to one run and four hits in six innings, and Mexico won its first game of the tournament at Hohokam Park.
Edgar Quintero tripled and drove in two runs for Mexico, and Francisco Mendez had an RBI double in support of Ramirez, who had eight strikeouts. Edgar Lizarraga came on in the ninth to earn the save.
CANADA 15, PANAMA 5: Stubby Clapp went 5-for-5, with two triples and a double, and Canada guaranteed itself a trip past regional Olympic qualifying by beating Panama at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.
Ryan Radmanovich had a solo homer, and Jeremy Ware doubled twice and scored four times in the runaway.
Jean Carlo Alonso homered in the seventh inning, and Audes DeLeon was 3-for-3 with a double and a run scored for Panama.
Regional Olympic qualifying tournament
Why: The top four finishers in the round-robin event will advance to the Americas Olympic qualifying tournament in Havana, Cuba, in August, 2006. Where/when: All games 1:05 p.m. Today: U.S. vs. Panama, Hohokam; Mexico vs. Canada, Maryvale; Nicaragua vs. Guatemala, Phoenix Saturday: U.S. vs. Canada, Maryvale; Mexico vs. Nicaragua, Mesa; Panama vs. Guatemala, Phoenix Tickets: $5 and $6 at the gate; all seats general admission.