IBIUNA, Brazil (AP) A prospect with a 94 mph fastball gets a lot of attention, no matter where he is pitching - even when that prospect is a diminutive 16-year-old from a country with little baseball tradition.
Eric Pardinho's blazing fastball has brought scouts to this city 50 miles west of Sao Paulo in soccer mad Brazil. The 5-foot, 8-inch tall right-hander could get a lot more attention July 2, when Major League Baseball teams can begin signing international players. Pardinho is No. 5 on MLB.com's list of 30 world prospects to watch.
Pretty impressive for a kid who was introduced to baseball almost by accident.
''I am only here because at 6 years of age I was playing paddleball on the beach and my uncle thought my control could be good for baseball back in Bastos,'' he said.
Bastos is a small town outside of Sao Paulo with a sizeable Japanese population. The Japanese began bringing their love of baseball and sushi to Brazil in the early 1900s.
Pardinho, whose mother's parents are Japanese, started gaining attention last year when he struck out 12 in a win over the powerhouse Dominican Republic at the under-16 Pan Am Games. In September he got two outs against Pakistan - both strikeouts - in a qualifier for the World Baseball Classic, a 10-0 win played in New York City.
The young Brazilian's changeup and slider have also earned praise from local coaches, who already see at him as a potential national star for baseball's return to the Olympics in 2020 at Tokyo. At the moment Brazil has only one player in MLB, the Cleveland Indians catcher Yan Gomes.
Since January, more and more visitors have come to watch Pardinho workout at a new MLB-sponsored training center in Ibiuna, another city influenced by baseball-loving Japanese immigrants.
Pardinho is eager to sign with a team and move to the United States.
''There is a lot that I will only learn when I go,'' said Pardinho.
The pitcher said his height should not be an issue, though his family members still hope that he will grow more in the next year.
''Some time ago there was an issue with shorter players, but now there are teams that don't care. It matters more that I have a safe fastball and two more good options, including a curveball that I control well,'' he said.
Other MLB hopefuls agree: facing Pardinho is a huge challenge.
''Pardinho's curveball is amazing, he is more than fast. His height doesn't matter because his arm can do wonders,'' said third baseman Victor Coutinho, also 16.
Also a pitcher, Heitor Tokar practices with Pardinho every day and believes in his friend's future in the sport.
''Pardinho doesn't feel any difference when he throws against players taller than him, he destroys them all,'' Tokar said.
Even Pardinho's coach, Mitsuyoshi Sato, knows the teen is headed for bigger challenges, and protects his arm. Sato pitches the soon-to-be pro no more than two innings at weekend tournaments.
Pardinho's father Evandro makes the hour-plus drive from Bastos to check on his son, and Sato makes sure Pardinho is a priority for Yakult training center medics. Pardinho has the support of an orthopedist, a physiotherapist and a fitness trainer. He also has a technical trainer.
''He still has to improve physically and mentally. I don't want him to do too many fastballs now because I worry about a possible injury,'' said Sato. ''No arm is prepared to pitch that fast, much less the arm of a kid.''
Sato believes Pardinho has room for improvement in the control of his changeup so he can spare his arm and shoulder.
Pardinho thinks if he has success, he could change baseball in Brazil.
If I do well, maybe more and more Brazilians, not only those of Japanese heritage, will think of playing on a diamond, too.''