Wellington Landings Middle School hadn’t scored a run, and trailed Christa McAuliffe Middle School late in the 2006-07 Palm Beach County middle school baseball championship game. After a 15-minute rain delay, the WLMS Gators’ undefeated season looked about to end.
But with two outs and no runners on base late in the game, the heart of the Gators’ order came to bat: eighth-graders Andrew Istler and Bobby Poyner.
While most from the Gators roster can’t recall specific play-by-play from that inning, Istler either singled or doubled. Poyner then hit a deep shot to left field for a double or a triple, scoring Istler and starting an inning that left fielder Alex Tannone said “broke the floodgates open” in the eventual 4-1 victory.
For Wellington Landings, the win completed a perfect 13-0 season, leaving a lasting memory of Wellington baseball. Eleven players from that team went on to play varsity ball in high school, and a few played in college, including Poyner for the University of Florida and Istler at Duke University.
“With all the talent Bobby and Andrew had and everything they brought to the field every day, you knew there was something special about them,” Tannone said. “They raised all of our levels to match theirs. That’s why we had such a good team.”
On June 11, both former Wellington stars were chosen in the Major League Baseball draft — Poyner (who attended Palm Beach Central High School) in the 13th round by the Boston Red Sox, and Istler (who attended Wellington High School) in the 23rd round by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“Since I spent the last two summers playing in the Cape Cod League, I’ve become a pretty big Red Sox fan,” Poyner said. “I’ve gone to a couple of games at Fenway Park, so I was really excited when I was talking to them throughout the draft. I really wanted them to pick me.”
Istler has been assigned to the Dodgers’ short-season A-affiliate in Ogden, Utah.
“Getting drafted was an unreal experience; a dream come true,” Istler said. “I am getting my shot to play in the big leagues, and that is all I could ever ask for.”
So far, he is enjoying his time in Utah. “One of my favorite things about playing baseball is getting to meet people from all over. The bonds you form with teammates is like a brotherhood, and nobody can take that away,” Istler said. “The scenery is also beautiful. Looking over the center-field wall, you can see mountains. It has just been and will continue to be an amazing experience, and I am so grateful I have this opportunity.”
Their former teammates in Wellington fondly remember playing with Istler and Poyner.
“In middle school, we only played two games a week, so every week it would be Andrew and Bobby, Andrew and Bobby,” recalled Jacob O’Keefe, who played catcher for Wellington Landings. “I think they pitched every game for us, and I believe we had two or three no-hitters in our 13-game season. Andrew must have had his adrenaline at an all-time high for that championship game, because my hand was black and blue for about a month afterward.”
THE CRAFTY GATOR
Poyner played recreational and travel ball through leagues at Okeeheelee Park until right before high school. While his pitches never possessed overpowering speed (75 to 78 mph in middle school), they had pinpoint accuracy and exceptional movement.
“I know for a fact that if I set up in a spot, he would hit it,” said Tannone, who caught for Poyner on the South Florida Giants travel team. “He had a lot of movement. He had a lot of junk pitches he could get you out on. But if he wanted to, he could come back and throw his fastball right by you.”
In middle school, O’Keefe said Poyner’s repertoire included an impressive changeup and curveball.
“Bobby relied on hitting his spots more so than most other pitchers at that age,” O’Keefe said. “He’s one of the few lefty pitchers I have ever caught that was able to consistently hit the inside corner on right-handed hitters.”
At Palm Beach Central — where he also played first base — Poyner developed a changeup that Tannone said he couldn’t hit to save his life, even if he knew it was coming. In one game, Poyner threw an inside pitch that broke O’Keefe’s aluminum bat.
In college, Poyner combined for a 14-9 record, including a senior-year record of 5-2 with a 2.56 ERA. He threw two shutout innings (four strikeouts) in UF’s NCAA tournament regional-clinching victory. In the College World Series, Poyner pitched three innings and didn’t allow an earned run, but the Gators fell one win shy of the championship.
During his college career, Poyner played with several current major leaguers, including Mariners catcher Mike Zunino and Dodgers pitcher Steve Rodriguez. He also played with Red Sox prospects Ryan Harris, Austin Maddox, Brian Johnson and Karsten Whitson.
“All the Red Sox told me so far is that they’re not 100 percent sure where they’re sending me,” Poyner said in mid-June. “All they’ve said is, ‘Go win a national championship.’”
THE BLUE DEVIL
Istler began playing baseball in Wellington, and then moved to the Okeeheelee league when he was 13 or 14. He briefly played with Poyner on the South Florida Giants, according to Tannone.
“I remember hating to catch Andrew because I had a glove that had seen its better days, and every single time I caught him, my catching hand would be twice the size as it was from the start of the game,” O’Keefe said.
In high school, Istler pitched, but also played center field. As a junior, he went 7-1 with a 1.41 ERA and hit .500 with 18 RBI. His fastball topped out at 95 mph. On March 22 of his senior year, Istler out-dueled West Boca High School’s Michael Kelly, who months later became a San Diego Padres first-round draft pick.
“He could do it all,” former Wellington shortstop and current San Diego Padres prospect Mitch Morales said. “He could hit, pitch, run and played hard every game.”
At Duke, Istler went 5-5 with a 3.23 ERA as a senior, allowing 31 earned runs on 86 hits over 86.1 innings. He struck out 82 batters and walked just 20. He led the Blue Devils in innings pitched and strikeouts.
Though they were two of the area’s best pitchers, Istler and Poyner faced each other only a handful of times in high school. In the spring of 2010, Palm Beach Central defeated Wellington with Poyner and Istler opposing each other. But that summer, Istler defeated Poyner in a travel league matchup.
“He is a great player, and we love the rivalry we share,” Istler said back in 2010. “If people compare us, I’ll take it as a compliment.”
Back then, Poyner agreed. “As far as comparisons, it just depends on the day. He’s a great pitcher. Not to mention baseball is a team game,” he said. “Whoever’s team shows up to play that day usually wins.”
Currently, Palm Beach Central has two players in the major leagues: Toronto Blue Jays starting second baseman Devon Travis and Houston Astros pitcher Brad Peacock. Wellington has one in St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Kevin Siegrist.
Last month, Istler and Poyner took their next steps in reaching that level.
“I knew they were always going to get drafted,” Tannone said. “It was just a matter of when and where they were actually going to get taken.”
ABOVE: Andrew Istler on the mound for Duke University earlier this year. PHOTO COURTESY DUKE PHOTOGRAPHY