GREENFIELD — The mystery has been solved.
For years, Greenfield-Central softball coach Jason Stewart and his daughter, Lilly, both asked the same question every time they tuned in to watch the Major League Baseball Home Run Derby.
How do those kids in the outfield get picked to shag fly balls?
“Now, we know,” Jason Stewart said. “The (MLB Pitch, Hit & Run) finalists get to go out there.”
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As one of 24 national finalists in the annual youth skills competition, Lilly will be able to answer another father-daughter question next week at Great American Ball Park, the home of the Cincinnati Reds.
How tough is it to catch a big league pop-up?
“I think it’s going to be amazing,” Lilly said. “Maybe I’ll get to meet a lot of the players and maybe get to keep some of the fly balls.”
“It’s going to be a little bit higher and a little quicker coming at you,” her dad said.
“Oh, yeah,” Lilly said with a smile. “It’s going to be fun.”
As one of three competitors in the 9-10-year-old girls division, Lilly, 10, will take the field at 3 p.m. Monday prior to the Gatorade All-Star Workout Day, which is highlighted by the 2015 Gillette Home Run Derby that night.
Eight age divisions — four boys and four girls — with three contestants per group will be judged and scored in pitching accuracy, hitting distance and sprinting speed to decide the overall winners.
So far, Lilly has aced all three facets at three levels to reach the show and a trip to MLB All-Star week.
“I didn’t think it would go this far. I didn’t think it would go all the way to the (MLB) All-Star Game and to be one of the best kids in the country,” said Lilly, an incoming fifth-grader at Maxwell Intermediate School in Greenfield. “The cool thing is, I’ve seen the home run derby, and the kids getting to go on the field, but I never imagined that would be me.”
The family’s journey began “by chance,” Jason Stewart said, when Lilly decided to take part in the local event at Brandywine Park in early April.
Her travel softball team, the Pendleton Irish, was hosting a tournament at the facility while the “Play Ball” initiative program was being held the same weekend. Persuaded to give it a shot by her family members, Lilly entered and placed first in her division.
She won again in May at Victory Field during the sectional prior to making the Reds Team Championship at Great American Ball Park last month, where she again was first.
Lilly competed against the top performers from southern Indiana in the sectional before facing the region’s best from Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky in Cincinnati.
The top-three sectional winners for each division from each market advanced to the regional. By winning for a third time, she became eligible to move on to the finals; but nothing was guaranteed.
“Each major league ball park had a winner from an age group, and they took the three highest scores out of the 30 major league ball parks,” Jason Stewart said. “The three highest go on to the All-Star Game.”
During four months, participants ages 7 to 14 were pared down from approximately 625,000 youths at 4,400 competitions.
The Stewarts found out Lilly was one of the chosen few just like everyone else, by watching MLB Network on June 28 as the finalists were announced live in prime time.
“It was pretty nerve-racking because they don’t send you a message,” Jason Stewart said. “They told you that you have to watch the MLB Network, so we watched it; and they popped her name up on the screen.”
Lilly added, “There were so many names that were called. I couldn’t believe it was my name. Being from a small town, it was pretty exciting.”
The additional perks that accompany being named a finalist elevated their exhilaration.
The participants and their families are provided hotel accommodations and two tickets to the MLB Home Run Derby and All-Star Game and will be treated to an honor banquet for their achievement.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’ve always wanted to go to (the MLB All-Star Game). It was on my bucket list. I never thought I would make it because of something my daughter did, so it’s really neat from that aspect,” Jason Stewart said. “Just the fact of her getting to experience something only 24 kids in the nation get to do, that’s a great thing. It’s something she’ll never forget. It’s something I’ll never forget. It’s awesome.”
Lilly intends to make it memorable once she gets back on the field as the lone Hoosier-native and a representative of her favorite team, the 2015 All-Star Game hosts.
“I’m just going to try to do my best, get a good score and try to win,” she said.
Her approach hasn’t failed her yet.
Launching the ball off a tee with her 31-inch Louisville Slugger at around 146 feet, which drew oohs and aahs from spectators at Victory Field, Lilly wants to drive the ball even deeper into the outfield grass during the finals.
She’s confident in her speed, measured across 160 feet for the competition, beginning just past second base and all the way to home plate. The distance is designed to replicate the 80-foot base paths used in youth ball.
As a middle infielder and pitcher, she has been strong with her throws, too, finding the strike zone with ease in the pitching portion of the contest.
Her efficiency ramped up at the Reds Team Championship after discovering she could alter her delivery from 35 feet, playing to her strengths.
“I didn’t know until Cincinnati I could pitch into the strike zone. All I did was throw overhand until that,” Lilly said. “When I pitched, I got 5 out of 6. I hit the first one. I felt pretty comfortable.”
“That’s the thing with her. If she can hit her pitching, she’ll be in good shape because there aren’t too many kids that hit it like her off the tee,” Jason Stewart said. “Speed-wise, she’ll be right there with everybody.”
She’ll be quick in the outfield as well, looking to collect those fly balls with her new Easton glove outstretched — and of course, maybe some autographs.
“The plan is to bring a Sharpie and walk around, get close enough and say, ‘Here, sign my shirt,’” Lilly said with a laugh.
“You have to find (Albert) Pujols for me,” her father said.
“I have no idea who that is,” Lilly said. “But sure.”
Name: Lily Stewart
School: Maxwell Intermediate (fifth grade)
Parents: Jason Stewart and Melissa Rainbolt
Softball travel team: Pendleton Irish
Favorite class: Reading
Favorite books: Mystery
Favorite MLB team: Cincinnati Reds
Favorite MLB player(s): Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips
Favorite high school softball player: Darci Huber, Greenfield-Central
Favorite movie: “A League of Their Own”
When not playing softball: “I’m jumping on a trampoline or playing basketball. “
2015 National Finalists
9-10-year-old girls division
Lilly Stewart;Greenfield, Ind.;Cincinnati Reds
Olivia Shaw;Flowery Branch, Ga.;Atlanta Braves
Abby Braby;California, Mo.;St. Louis Cardinals
What is MLB Pitch, Hit & Run?
Pitch, Hit & Run (PHR) invites youth to demonstrate their skills by competing in pitching, hitting and running competitions. PHR participants advance through four levels of competition, beginning at the local level, which is hosted by organizations, leagues, or volunteers within a community, and continuing through sectional and team competitions. All 30 MLB clubs hosted team championships at their ballparks on weekends from May 30 through June 28. The top three competitors nationwide from each age group (7-8, 9-10, 11-12 and 13-14) advanced to the 2015 Major League Baseball Pitch, Hit & Run program presented by Scotts National Finals.
The skills competition is part of the “PLAY BALL” initiative between Major League Baseball and USA Baseball, which encourages widespread participation in all forms of baseball activities among all age groups, especially youth.