Even more improbable than Fountain Valley High School’s surge into tonight’s Southern Section 4-A championship baseball game is Steve Miller’s ascent to prominence in the Barons’ lineup.
Few thought the Barons, third-place finishers in the Sunset League with a 7-7-1 record, would be playing in Anaheim Stadium against Camarillo at 8 tonight, but not even Fountain Valley Coach Tom DeKraai expected Miller to be the one to spark the team’s offense during the later stages of the season.
In the Barons’ last six games, including four playoff victories, Miller is 15 for 32 (.469) with two triples, four doubles and eight RBIs. Fountain Valley had to win its final two regular season games to make the playoffs, and Miller twice responded with solid offensive performances.
He went 3 for 4 with three RBIs in an 8-4 win over Edison and 2 for 4 with two RBIs in an 8-0 win over Huntington Beach. During the playoffs, the second baseman hit a two-out, two-run double in the first round that gave the Barons a 3-2 win over Rowland, and he also had an early, two-run triple in Tuesday’s 9-3 semifinal win over Ocean View.
And this is the same Steve Miller who missed the Barons’ first 12 games because he was ineligible, who made two errors, got picked off second base and was caught stealing third with two outs in his first start against Westminster in March, who was relegated to a reserve role for 10 games after that poor outing, and who considered quitting the team at one point?
Hard to believe.
It had been a rough season for Miller, but the senior’s fortunes, along with those of the Barons, have changed drastically during the past three weeks. Fountain Valley had won just one playoff game prior to this season, and tonight will mark the Barons’ first appearance in a baseball championship game in the school’s 20-year history.
One of the players who is most responsible for Fountain Valley’s success is Miller, the Barons’ lead-off hitter.
“He’s probably the most important guy in our offense right now,” DeKraai said. “He’s been our catalyst, starting off a lot of innings with hits, but he’s also had some big hits during the later innings.”
A few months ago, Miller was beginning to wonder if he’d ever have a chance to show DeKraai what kind of player he is.
Miller, who played at Edison High and lived with his mother in Huntington Beach last year, moved into his father’s Fountain Valley home last summer and transferred to Fountain Valley High.
But because he had not filed the proper paper work with the CIF Southern Section office and both school principals until March, he was not given a waiver to compete until the Barons’ third league game.
That’s when Miller got the call to replace a slumping Chris Bugbee at second base. And that’s when Miller flopped in a 6-6 tie against Westminster.
“He tried so hard that day that he played one of the poorest games he’s ever played as far as base-running and fielding mistakes,” DeKraai said. “Afterward, I felt he was out there more as an individual than a team player, so I had a few words with him.”
Miller elaborated on DeKraai’s speech.
“He said I was the worst second baseman he’d ever coached. That gave me a little more incentive to go out and show him I was better than that, and that I didn’t deserve the chewing out he gave me.”
Regardless of Miller’s extra desire, DeKraai returned him to the bench, with the exception of a few appearances as a designated hitter or pinch-hitter.
He finally got another chance against Edison on May 7 and made the most of it. Miller said the Edison game also was a turning point for the entire team.
“That was the first time we played as a team since the season started,” he said. “I think we had the potential all year and that our pitching is the best in Orange County, but we were losing because we played as individuals instead of a team.
“We had a lot of people being recruited by colleges, and that might have made us a little cocky and individualistic. But we finally came together as a team.”
The player most heavily recruited has been pitcher Bob Sharpnack, who will start tonight. Sharpnack, the ace of the staff for the past three years, threw just 61 pitches against Ocean View Tuesday and should be well rested. Don Snowden will be in relief.
The Barons enter the finale with a 20-9-1 record--their first 20-win season ever--while Camarillo, the Marmonte League champion, is 22-7. The Scorpions beat Culver City, St. Francis, Redondo and St. John Bosco to advance to tonight’s game.