Any possibility of Michael Russo roaming the outfield seemed anything but a lock not too long ago.
Russo had no trouble adjusting to pitch selection and being a consistent threat with the bat for the Crescenta Valley High baseball team. On the flip side, Russo needed plenty of work on defense if he wanted to provide the Falcons with another dimension and pursue competing at the collegiate level.
After breaking in with the team as a designated hitter and making an occasional appearance playing first base two seasons ago to finding a spot in left field last season, things have come together rather nicely for Russo while patrolling right field. It’s something the senior wasn’t sure would come to fruition.
“The transition to playing the outfield was a little tough at first,” Russo said. “I even needed to go and buy an outfield glove and I didn’t even know how to break it in at first.
“I’ve been working hard with [outfielder coach] Bryan Rich for the last couple of seasons and keep practicing how to take the right routes to the ball and make accurate throws. Two years ago, I didn’t think any of this would happen.”
The willingness to learn playing multiple outfield positions has paid off greatly for the red-hot Falcons, who are 12-0-1 in their last 13 games. Crescenta Valley (19-7-1) won the Pacific League championship and will host Damien (17-9) in a CIF Southern Section Division II first-round game at 7 p.m. Thursday at Stengel Field.
He’s thrown out several runners at first base from right field and made some nice running catches to quell potential big innings from the opposition.
“He’s definitely been accurate out in right field,” Crescenta Valley Coach Phil Torres said. “It’s a far cry from a couple of years ago.
“If you asked me a two years ago where he’d be on the team, I’d say a designated hitter. He’s still a work in progress, but he’s getting better jumps and reads on the ball.”
It’s at the plate where the Cal State Northridge University-bound Russo is most comfortable. He’s spent the bulk of the season batting third while wearing out opposing pitchers.
Entering Thursday’s contest, Russo is batting a robust .410 (34 for 83) with five home runs and 20 runs batted in. He’s recorded seven doubles and scored 19 runs, to go along with an eye-popping 1,207 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Russo also stole home on a double-steal attempt in the first inning of Crescenta Valley’s 1-0 league home win against Arcadia on Friday to bring the Falcons an outright league title.
“You have to be able to keep things basic at the plate,” said Russo, who registered a .469 on-base percentage with 15 runs and 15 runs batted in last season. “I had trouble getting started at the plate at the beginning of the season. I had been striking out too much. Just before league started, I was able to start to turn things around. With the playoffs now, we’ll see what happens.”
Torres said Russo has provided plenty of pop near the top of the lineup.
“He’s just been having a great year at the plate,” Torres said. “He’s got unbelievable power.
“Whether he hits the ball on the ground or in the air, there’s a good chance he’s going to get on base.”
On the mound, the Falcons have been led by junior ace Brian Gadsby.
Gadsby, a reigning All-Area pick in baseball and football, said the pitching staff has been able to rely on Russo playing behind them.
“We are confident with him 100% out there,” said Gadsby, who scattered two hits while going the distance against Arcadia on Friday. “We’ve seen him throw people out at first, plus he’s improved a lot with his speed and range.
“On offense, the other teams respect him. He’s so quick that he can change a game just like that with one swing. He can hit the ball over the fence or get a single, if needed.”
Russo said there’s plenty of work ahead for him to make additional improvement before joining CSUN, a Division I program in the Big West Conference.
“There’s no such thing as the perfect player,” Russo said. “It’s been a long process for me, but it’s been worth it.
“I wouldn’t have believed it either about playing in the outfield. It just seems to have worked out for the best.”
Follow Charles Rich on Twitter: @TCNCharlesRich.