Benefield: Former Empire rivals face off again in Pac-12 baseball

The two best power hitters in college baseball will face off in a three-game series starting Thursday and Joey Gomes would like nothing more than to see one of them get a walk.

No fireworks or rocket shots to deep center field. A walk.

Gomes, the manager of the Healdsburg Prune Packers who has been a hitting coach for both sluggers, wants to see either Arizona State freshman Spencer Torkelson or Cal sophomore Andrew Vaughn take a slow trot to first because it's there that one will see the other. Class of 2017 Casa Grande grad Torkelson, leading the nation with 25 homers, plays first base. Class of 2016 Maria Carrillo grad Vaughn, second in the nation in homers at 23, also plays first base.

No more group texts between Gomes, Vaughn and Torkelson about who is where on the homer list or who's team is going to do what in the final series of Pac-12 play. Gomes wants to see what these two Sonoma County boys, two of the hottest properties in college baseball, do when they are both standing with one foot on the bag.

“Those guys are going to want to outdo each other,” Gomes said. “They seem really excited about this opportunity to have their teams go at it.”

And go at it they will. Neck and neck all season long, the next three games will decide who is the home run king of the NCAA.

“It's so special,” Gomes said. “And then, ‘Oh, by the way, they are playing each other to end the year.' Of course they are. That's how movies are written.”

Heading into the series, Torkelson is tied for second on ASU's single-season homer list. If he wins the NCAA homer crown, he'll be the first freshman to do it. Vaughn has tied Cal's single-season homer record with his 23.

Arguably the two best hitters in the nation, they are barely removed from high school, having spent their prep years battling it out in the North Bay League, on diamonds that as the crow flies - or, perhaps more fittingly, as a moon shot flies - are 17 miles apart.

Torkelson and Vaughn are both semifinalists for the USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award and the Dick Howser Trophy, and they are both on the roster for the Team USA collegiate national team that will play on the East Coast this summer. Two guys who have duked it out on Little League diamonds in these parts are now among the very brightest lights in college baseball. And they are still duking it out - until the bitter end of the season.

It's kind of crazy.

Vaughn, last year's Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, came into the season on the watchlist for Golden Spikes, given to the best amateur baseball player in the nation. But the folks at USA Baseball had little choice but to put Torkelson in the mix at midseason when he started, and then continued, hitting the crud out of everything. He's the only freshman on the watchlist.

Vaughn's .414 batting average is the best in the Pac-12 and fifth-best in the nation. Vaughn also leads the conference in slugging percentage (.848) and on-base percentage (.535). If Vaughn can close out the season as the category leader in all three, he'll be only the fourth player in Pac-12 history to win the triple crown.

He's first in the conference for total bases (162), tied for first for runs scored (57), second in hits (79) and tied for third in RBIs (60).

But where you see Vaughn's name on the category leader list, you often see Torkelson's somewhere near by.

The freshman is second in the conference in slugging percentage, tied for second in total bases (150), third in runs scored (56), tied for sixth in RBI (53), ninth in on-base percentage (.443) and he's ranked 20th in batting average (.323). And of course, he's No. 1 in dingers.

It's a rather amazing show of prowess from two underclassmen.

“After they are done, it won't be the norm to say ‘Well, after three years of getting your feet wet and by your senior year you are ready to go,'” said Gomes, who played for Santa Clara University before spending 10 seasons in the minor leagues. “Those guys are raising the bar. Everyone is going to need to work a little bit harder. They are going to make the conference so much better. If you aren't going to get better, they are going to destroy you.

“It could not be more awesome that they are both from our county,” he said.

In their prep careers, Vaughn and Maria Carrillo had the upper hand in head-to-head matchups. In the three high school seasons that Vaughn and Torkelson faced off, Vaughn's Pumas won five of the head-to-head games, while Torkelson and Casa Grande won three. But in that span, Casa won the NBL title twice and Carrillo once.

Despite the rivalry, Gomes said he and the two phenoms are on a group text and the jawing leading up to this series has been exactly nonexistent. He almost sounds disappointed.

“It's not even like friendly banter,” he said. “It's like they are encouraging each other.”

Well, maybe that's because after a young lifetime of going up against each other, the two will actually suit up for the same side sooner rather than later. Both Vaughn and Torkelson are slated to play for the collegiate national team this summer, facing off against the likes of Japan and Chinese Taipei.

It marks the second summer in a row that Vaughn will play for the national team. It will be a first for Torkelson. It also means that despite early signals that he would, Vaughn won't be able to suit up for Gomes' Prune Packers and play California Collegiate League summer baseball this season.

Gomes doesn't seem too worried about it.

“In some ways, it helps everyone. It brings attention to the community,” he said. “They are going to be a hot topic for awhile and they are from our county and we love that.”

They will continue to be. The home run chase leaders facing off in the final series of the regular season? And both from the same county and the same league in high school? It's a great subplot in an already amazing story.

And for added drama, this series has real postseason ramifications for the Golden Bears, who come in with a 30-21 overall record and 14-13 in the Pac-12.

“A sweep would put them a little bit past the bubble,” Gomes said of the Golden Bears' chances. NCAA tournament selections will be announced Monday.

ASU isn't in contention after putting up an overall record of 22-30 and conference tally of 12-15 heading into the series with Cal.

But that by no means indicates that 1) this series doesn't matter or 2) people won't be watching.

This is must-see stuff.

So dramatic is this showdown, so full of different plotlines, that Gomes almost made the trip to Tempe.

“Andrew was like, ‘You've got to come to the game. Fly down,'” Gomes said.

But Gomes had a practical question: “Well, where do I sit?”

So Gomes stayed home. When the first pitch is thrown, he will likely be giving a hitting lesson in his Santa Rosa batting cage. He will rig up his iPad to speakers in the cage and pace the proceedings accordingly.

“We'll all stop when anyone of those guys are at bat,” he said.

We might all do that.

“Spencer and Andrew are having such a national-scale success at such a young age, they are not going away,” he said. “I don't see it slowing down.

“The show is not over,” he said. “This is to be continued.”

Next installment of the show: Thursday at 7 p.m.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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