IT'S PLAYOFF TIME : Baseball: It's Difficult to Win With Just One Ace

Times Staff Writer

Most high school baseball coaches feel fortunate to have one outstanding pitcher--that dominant force on the mound who draws all of the big-game assignments.

But, come Southern Section playoff time, when every game presents a must-win situation, coaches wish they had a pair of aces rather than one of a kind.

One pitcher can get a team past the first two games, throwing Friday's first-round game and Tuesday's second-round game on three days rest. But coming back for the following Friday's quarterfinals, with only two days rest, can be difficult.

No pitcher on the two Orange County teams that reached championship games last season--Esperanza in the 4-A division and Western in the 3-A--had to shoulder such a burden.

Aztec Coach Mike Curran had Steve Halweg (15-2) and Tim MacNeil (8-0), and Pioneer Coach Dave Bowman had Rich Lodding (12-2) and David Tellers (11-2). Neither was considered the ace of his staff. All four were stoppers who split time during the playoffs.

But no county teams can boast of such pitching quality and depth this season. Some teams have only one outstanding pitcher; some have one stopper and one or two good pitchers, and some have two or three good pitchers.

There is some relief for county coaches, though--they're not the only ones facing an arms shortage. Pitching seems to be down throughout the Southern Section this year.

"I've scouted a lot of teams in the last two weeks," said El Dorado Coach Steve Gullotti.

"Everyone had a good pitcher, but no one outstanding. And I haven't seen anyone with two real good pitchers. So everyone's in the same boat."

That should open the tournament up to more high-scoring games, especially in the later rounds. More of an emphasis will be placed on offense and defense, while pitching may play a less significant role.

With that in mind, here's a look at the 4-A, 3-A and 2-A playoffs, and which county teams will have the best chances to reach Dodger Stadium for the June 6 championships:

4-A

The 4-A field is wide open.

Esperanza (21-2) is the top seed, but the defending champion Aztecs don't have the dominating team they had last season, when they had five players hitting .400 or better and two excellent pitchers. El Dorado (19-4) is seeded second, but has only one stopper in senior left-hander Steve Gill and four others who have pitched equal amounts.

Bishop Amat (20-4), the third seed, has one of Southern California's best pitchers in junior left-hander J.R. Phillips (11-0) but very little beyond that. The Lancers will go only as far as Phillips takes them. Arcadia (18-5-1), the fourth seed, is young, starting four juniors and a sophomore.

If any of the top seeds loses before the semifinals, it should not be considered an upset. There are many teams--most notably Santa Monica, Servite, Ocean View, Millikan, Lakewood, Westminster, Crespi and Simi Valley--that are capable of knocking off the top seeds.

Santa Monica won 15 straight games during one stretch this season. Servite is one of the few teams with good pitching depth, behind James Ferguson, Craig Barkley and Andy Croghan.

Ocean View (18-6) has two good pitchers in Mike Fyhrie and Dan Naulty and an outstanding offense, led by David Holdridge (9 homers, 36 RBIs) and Eric Christopherson (.471, 4 homers, 23 RBIs).

Millikan (16-10), the second-place team from the Moore League, has two good pitchers in Phil Kendall, who struck out 18 in one game this season, and sophomore David Mauss, who is 7-0 since being called up from the junior varsity team in April.

Moore League champion Lakewood (20-7) is led by senior right-hander Mike McNary (7-3, 100 strikeouts, 18 walks) and should be bolstered by the return of catcher John Baldwin, who missed the last month of the regular season with a knee injury but made some pinch-hit appearances last week.

Westminster (18-6-1)--with Al Rodriguez (.459, 6 homers, 25 RBIs), Dean Eddy (.433), Ben Mendoza (.424), Dan Villegas (5 homers) and Ryan Klesko (25 RBIs)--has a potent offense and three solid pitchers in John Gonzales (6-1), Brian Stubbs (8-4) and Klesko (4-1).

Crespi (19-5-1) won the Del Rey League title and is led by pitcher Chris Spears (8-2). Simi Valley (19-6), the Marmonte League champion, relies on the hitting and pitching of Scott Sharts (.432, 11 homers, 30 RBIs and an 8-2 pitching record).

If Esperanza continues to receive good pitching from sophomore Roger Weems and junior Jason Moler, the Aztecs should be able to reach the quarterfinals. But they will probably have to beat either Servite or Santa Monica in the quarterfinals and either Ocean View, Millikan or Arcadia in the semifinals.

If Ferguson, Servite's ace who has been suffering from bronchitis, recovers fully and returns to form, the Friars should contend. But, of county teams in the upper bracket, Esperanza and Ocean View have the best shot to reach the semifinals.

In the lower bracket, if Westminster and Lakewood win their first-round games, they will meet in the second round. The winner of that game should have the best shot at reaching the finals.

Keep this in mind: For the past 16 years, no 4-A team has entered the postseason playoffs ranked No. 1 and then won five games to win the title. Lakewood was the last team to live up to its ranking, winning the title in 1970.

3-A

Orange County has placed at least one team in the 3-A championship game in 9 of the past 10 years and has had four teams win championships, but it's doubtful the county will have a representative in this year's 3-A title game.

There are only nine county teams in the tournament, and two--Santa Ana (16-9) and Sonora (11-13)--play in a wild-card game today, with the winner going up against fourth-seeded Upland in Friday's first round.

Fullerton (16-8) and Villa Park (16-10) play Friday, but the winner will probably face top-seeded Redondo (20-6) in the second round. And Orange League champion Valencia (14-8) plays Leuzinger (20-6), which finished third in the tough Pioneer League but was ranked No. 1 in the 3-A division for several weeks this season.

Century League co-champion Canyon (17-7), which has two good pitchers in John Cummings and Scott Bladow, and Freeway League champion Troy (17-6), which has one of the county's top pitchers in Chris Robinson, appear to have the best chances to reach the semifinals.

Troy opens against Savanna (13-9-1), a team the Warriors have beaten three times this season, and Canyon opens against Corona (15-11). If both win their first-round games, they will meet in the second round.

Redondo, the favorite, has one of Southern California's top players in pitcher/shortstop Scott Davison, who is 12-1 and set a Southern Section record with 58 RBIs. He's also hitting better than .500 with six home runs.

Ivy League champion John W. North (21-5), the third seed, is led by pitcher Scott Chanz, who has signed a letter of intent with UCLA.

El Segundo (20-9) is the second-place team from the Pioneer League.

2-A

Second-seeded Capistrano Valley (22-3) is the county favorite to reach the finals. The Cougars, who play Duarte (10-11) Thursday, have solid pitchers in right-handers Brett Snyder (9-1) and Lance August (5-1) and lefty reliever Brian Walker.

Tommy Adams (.429, 8 homers, 22 RBIs, 24 runs) leads Capistrano Valley's offense. Walker, the team's designated hitter, is batting .429.

La Quinta (21-4) is seeded fourth, but the Aztecs lost twice to Rancho Alamitos last week and haven't faced much competition in the Garden Grove League. The Aztecs have two good pitchers in Mike Wilson (12-2) and James Marquez (8-1), but neither is overpowering.

Two other county teams--Dana Hills (17-8-1) and Laguna Hills (16-9)--might have had a good shot at advancing past the second round, but they meet in Friday's first round.

Laguna Hills is led by pitcher Jon Willard (7-3), center fielder Chris Sheff (.418) and catcher Aaron Arredondo (.410). Dana Hills relies on pitchers Bryan Hatch (7-2) and J.B. Hollis.

Sea View League champion Saddleback (18-7) is a good hitting team behind Danny Ontiveros and Sean Therien. The Roadrunners also have good team speed and decent pitching.

Golden League champion Saugus (18-5) is seeded first on the strength of a pitching staff that features sophomore Roger Salkeld (8-3) and senior Steve Risinger.

The three Suburban League entrants--Bellflower, Glenn and La Mirada, who finished in a three-way tie for first at 10-5--should also challenge.

Two Suburban League teams (La Mirada and Bellflower) are in the lower bracket with Capistrano Valley, and La Mirada must play third-seeded Santa Paula in the first round. But Capistrano Valley should be able to reach the finals.

In the upper bracket, Saddleback has the most talent among county teams, but Saugus has better pitching and depth.

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