WEST HILLS, Calif. - Outside an immaculately manicured high school baseball field set along a tree-lined street in a hilly Los Angeles suburb, a group of kids scurried up to the chainlink fence.
"Blake's up! Blake's up!" they announced.
The legend of Blake Rutherford, Chaminade College Prep High School's star centerfielder and the potential No. 1 overall pick for the Phillies in next week's first-year player MLB draft, has grown to match his 6-foot-2 stature. It started when Rutherford committed to UCLA as a freshman in high school and continued to grow with each scout that showed up to watch the projected top-10 draft pick.
As if on cue, Rutherford laced a single over the second baseman's head with his natural left-handed swing, and the kids, with their eyes wide, exploded with excitement.
"He's performed in the big moments," Chaminade assistant coach and Philadelphia native Mark Gubicza said. "That's the thing I always go back to. A lot of kids can skate underneath the radar and then all of the sudden, bam, they're there. But Blake has been under the spotlight for quite a long time."
In an area rich in baseball talent, Rutherford, who calls Simi Valley, Calif., home, stood out on the usual competitive circuit with a powerful lefty bat, tremendous speed and a strong arm in center field. Rutherford has consistently put up gaudy numbers in one of the toughest high school leagues in the country and even at the international level as a member of the under-18 gold medal-winning World Cup team last summer.
"I think I can change a game in many ways," Rutherford said. "Whether it's on the base paths, in the outfield or in the batter's box, there's a lot of things I can do on a baseball field. But I think it's my competitive edge that really stands out. I hate to lose. But I feel like the way I carry myself and the way I go about the game is the best thing about me."
While center field is where Rutherford would ideally like to stay, some scouts are predicting a move to a corner outfield position. Rutherford said he would be comfortable moving, and his arm strength suggests a move to right.
Rutherford comes from an athletic family with his father, Roy, having played football at Eastern Michigan, and his brother, Cole, currently playing first base for Cornell. He hits for contact and can drive the ball a long way. But he's also selective with his pitches, benefitting from a renewed emphasis on drawing walks this season. Batting leadoff this season also forced him to take more pitches.
"That was the conversation last year, with not just myself but with head coach Frank Mutz and the rest of the coaching staff," Gubicza said. "As much as you love to put up numbers so the scouts and everyone in the stands can see how much you're doing, I said,'You have to start taking walks because if you're seeing pitches well outside of the strike zone, you're going to have some bad swings.' "
Gubicza would know a centerfielder when he sees one. As part of the broadcast team for the Los Angeles Angels, on a daily basis Gubicza sees the best one in the game in Mike Trout. While Gubicza said Rutherford compares to Jim Edmonds or Jason Heyward with his build and Will Clark with the way the ball comes off his bat, there's a little Trout in him as well.
"Sometimes it's overused, that term 'five-tool player,' " Gubicza said. "When I watch Mike Trout every day and when I was watching Blake as much as I could, I see there's other intangibles like the passion for the game, the knowledge of the strike zone and what you try to do for your teammates."
If there's one thing Rutherford cares about, it's his teammates. Yes, he's serious about baseball, but he cares immensely for those around him. He volunteers with Little League's Challenger Division, and one player in particular, Pablo, has captured his attention. Rutherford said he plans to continue volunteering with similar organizations as a pro and has bigger charitable aspirations already.
The Rutherford family as well as his advisor, Casey Close of Excel Sports Management, have had contact with the Phillies and while he says all conversations have been positive, he rests easier knowing that he can head to Westwood and play at UCLA.
Regardless of where Rutherford plays at the next level, he's just trying to be the person and the player those kids at the fence think he is.
"I want to be someone that can bring a city together," Rutherford said. "Not just on the baseball field winning championships, but someone who can bring a community together and have a real baseball community. I feel like there's nothing better than those communities."