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Duo takes act to Futures Game

Duo takes act to Futures Game

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The Huntsville Stars have the best offense in the Southern League, no other team is even close.

The Brewers' Double-A affiliate leads the league in just about every offensive category. It's a deep team, but a big reason why the Stars lineup has been clicking all year are two bats that have been in the middle of it all season long. Now both are getting the opportunity to possibly take their show overseas to represent the United States in the Olympics. At the very least, their performances have earned them a trip to Yankee Stadium and New York City for the XM Satellite Radio All-Star Futures Game.

Third baseman Mat Gamel has hit third all year for Huntsville and if voting were held now, he'd have to be a favorite to be chosen as the league's MVP. The Brewers' fourth-round pick in the 2005 Draft, Gamel leads the Southern League in batting average and RBIs and stands third in home runs. He also tops the circuit in runs scored, doubles, slugging percentage and OPS.

He trails only two people in long balls in the Southern League this year. One is West Tenn's Michael Wilson. The other, who leads the league with 20 homers, is Gamel's teammate Matt LaPorta. Milwaukee's first-round pick a year ago, LaPorta has hit fourth or fifth behind Gamel and has proven to be more than capable as a run-producer in his own right. He's second to Gamel in RBIs and slugging percentage and stands third in the league in OPS. Combined, the duo has hit 34 homers and driven in 139 runs over Huntsville's 85 games.

"We just have a great lineup; we all feed off each other," LaPorta said. "Especially with Gamel, he's such a talented player. He's one of the best hitters I've seen in a long time. Some people could say it's luck, but you don't hit that well for that long and have it be just luck.

"It's been fun to hit behind him. The fear pitchers have of him, they just have so much respect for him. I see him go out and get a couple of hits and I want to get a couple of hits, too. We help each other get better."

It's been a one station at a time climb for Gamel, who was a South Atlantic League All-Star in his first full season (2006) and was named to the Florida State League postseason All-Star team in 2007. Following that campaign, Gamel went to Hawaii and challenged for the Triple Crown (sound familiar?) and was named the league MVP and Offensive Player of the Year for his efforts. Clearly, it's carried over in his first taste of Double-A ball.

"He's showing a lot more confidence at the plate," Brewers farm director Reid Nichols said. "I don't think he ever doubts going to the plate that he's going to get a hit."

LaPorta has been on the fast track ever since signing as a senior out of the University of Florida. After a brief stint in the Pioneer League, LaPorta went straight to full-season West Virginia where he immediately showed the kind of right-handed power the Brewers were hoping for when they somewhat surprisingly took him with the No. 7 overall pick in last year's Draft. He made the leap up to Double-A to start this year and has kept on mashing. In his first 111 pro games heading into the holiday weekend, spanning 408 at-bats, LaPorta had bashed 31 homers and slugged .610. And that's not counting the six homers he hit in the elite Arizona Fall League, good enough to tie him for that league's lead.

"He's got tremendous numbers if you take all of his at-bats for a first-year player," Nichols said. "He's got to be ranked with anyone who's done anything of note. That's lots of home runs and RBIs compared to the amount of at-bats he has in pro baseball."

That's the biggest difference between the two Stars, err, stars. LaPorta is more pure power, with the ability to draw walks. Along with those 31 homers in 111 games, he's got 95 RBIs and a .394 on-base percentage. While Gamel has hit some out in his career, his .382 average has his career mark up to .316 to go along with a .510 slugging percentage. Throw in the fact that Gamel hits lefty and LaPorta righty and there isn't too much they can take from each other's games.

"We're two different kinds of hitters," LaPorta explained. "He's putting good power numbers up, but he's more of a contact, line drive power guy and I'm more straight power guy and less of a contact hitter."

One thing they have shared in common has been the need to make some defensive adjustments. Gamel made a whopping 53 errors in 2007 and has made 23 in 87 games at third this year. Most of them have been of the throwing variety, but although the error total is high, the work Gamel has put in on that side of the ball is starting to pay off.

"His defense has improved as well," said Nichols, who pointed out that some of Gamel's errors were because of other position players' mistakes, like covering bases late. "He used to make what looked like careless mistakes, but he's getting that under control."

A first baseman at the end of his college career, LaPorta has been making the switch to the corner outfield as a pro and now that a quad injury that plagued him for a long period of time in college is healed, he's moving much better out there.

Ironically, though, USA Baseball chose LaPorta to be a first baseman, a position he's played just a couple of times this year. No matter, says LaPorta, who's amenable to whatever the club thinks is best.

"It doesn't matter to me, as long as I'm out on the baseball field," LaPorta said. "I'll be representing the country, at least in the Futures Game and maybe in the Olympics. Any way I can do that and help us become victorious, I'm all about it. Whatever I can do to help the team out."

Both LaPorta and Gamel must know that even if they do make the trip to Beijing, the team they will be helping out long-term resides in Milwaukee. The duo's success -- along with several other Huntsville teammates -- points to what's going right in an organization that has built a playoff contender largely from within.

"It's always an honor when your players are rated highly on the national scene," Nichols said of LaPorta and Gamel being named to the U.S Team. "The better [sign] is in the big leagues, all those guys coming through the system and helping out in the big leagues. You have to be happy with where we're doing in our development system."

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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