The announcement was almost enough to make a guy choke on his morning doughnut. Paul Geller had been told the night before that he might be called on to pitch, but he never figured it would be as a starter.
A last-minute change in strategy, however, was discussed Sunday morning over breakfast. Geller’s Woodland Hills West team needed a doubleheader sweep of Claremont on the final day of the 6th Area playoffs at UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium to advance to the state tournament, and many expected West right-hander Pat Treend to start the opener Sunday morning.
Geller, who usually starts at second base, figured he might pitch in relief, if at all. Scramble those plans: Geller would start the opener and Treend would pitch in the second game--if there was one.
Talk about a wake-up call. This was as sobering as burnt coffee, and at that hour, not much easier for Geller to swallow.
“I figured I’d rather have a tired second baseman in the second game than a tired pitcher in the first one,” West Coach Don Hornback said of the switch. “This way, Geller hadn’t played an entire game before he started in the second one and Treend got the extra time to rest. Of course, if I had been wrong. . . .”
Even Treend--who was sent back to the team hotel on Sunset Boulevard to get some additional rest--thought it might be over early.
“I remember Pat was talking to Jeff (Marks, a West outfielder) and I don’t think he even knew if I was there or not,” Geller said, laughing. “Pat said, ‘You’ve got to get through the first one.’ I was like, ‘Great, my own teammates aren’t even sure about this.’ ”
Geller nonetheless posted a few goose eggs as West rolled to a 5-2 victory in the opener. West rallied behind Treend in the second game to win, 16-7, advancing to the state tournament, which begins Saturday in Yountville, Calif.
It was hardly the first time Geller, in the vernacular of his teammates, “clutched up.” The term could just as easily conjure images of hands around the throat in an all-out choke. But not for Geller, who all season has been the player applying the stranglehold.
Against Claremont, Geller struck out seven and walked one. He did not permit an earned run and gave up eight hits, seven of which were singles. And this against a team that had defeated Treend, 8-7, in the first round of the Area tournament to snap West’s 20-game win streak.
“It sent chills through my spine,” said Treend’s father, Chuck, who attended the game.
Said Hornback: “I don’t think anybody pitched a better game that whole tournament, including the so-called real pitchers.”
Reality, it seems, has taken the summer off.
Last season, Geller was West’s sacrificial lamb in the playoffs. Even though the team eventually won the World Series title, Geller was twice used in the playoffs to pitch meaningless games after West had clinched a spot in the championship bracket. He was 0-2 and in the showers before many fans finished their first fistfuls of popcorn.
This season, armed with a cut fastball that he recently discovered while “messin’ around in the bullpen,” Geller is 5-0 with four saves and an earned-run average of 1.65.
“No one really expects me to throw as hard as Treend and just mow ‘em down or chuck it right by people,” Geller said. “Even when I get hit, it’s mainly ground balls that get through. I just try to keep it down. I just throw low and hit spots.”
His credentials in the field have been virtually spotless as well--Hornback says Geller has made just four fielding errors at second this summer. Additionally, Geller more than capably filled in at shortstop for two weeks while teammate Gregg Sheren recovered from a groin injury.
Geller batted .406 in the regular season and had an on-base percentage of .590, sparking West’s long win streak from the leadoff position. More important, however, were Geller’s contributions in the dugout.
West, a team composed primarily of players from El Camino Real High, struggled to a 1-3 start this season. El Camino Real, a favorite to win the City Section 4-A Division title, had stumbled in the championship game at Dodger Stadium, falling to Chatsworth.
About the last thing many of Geller’s teammates wanted to do was play more baseball. But Geller, a 1989 graduate of El Camino Real who tried to make the team at USC as a walk-on and failed, felt differently. He and teammate Del Marine, another ’89 El Camino Real graduate who did not play college baseball last season, were more than ready for the summer season.
“That (Chatsworth) loss was the beginning of a nightmare,” Geller, 18, said. “We were so ready to come out, ready to play with all of our friends. Then we start 1-3 or whatever it was, people weren’t showing up at practice and the attitude was, ‘Oh well, we’ll turn it around whenever.’
“My feeling was, ‘This is my last year. We’re turning it around right now.’ ”
Obviously, Geller wasn’t taking this sitting down.
“They were the ones who had to sit out a year,” teammate Jason Cohen said of Geller and Marine. “We came out like bums and they came out steaming.”
Geller went about effecting the turnabout by example. After El Camino Real fell to 1-2 in Legion play with a game with Chatsworth looming, Geller began to look for answers. He found it staring back at him in the mirror.
“I was trying to think about how I could get our team rolling,” he said. “About two days before the (Chatsworth) game, I watched a videotape of the ’88 Dodgers in the World Series. I was watching Mickey Hatcher, the guy they called the human dynamo. He was running all over, he was not pretty, but he was making things happen. I must have watched that six times in the days before the game.
“Then I went in my room the night before the game and wrote down a couple of notes to myself. One was from (El Camino Real Coach Mike) Maio. It said, ‘It takes no ability to hustle.’ I put that and a couple of others and put them up on my mirror.”
Geller then played the best defensive game of his career in West’s 2-0 loss to Chatsworth. Geller made five eye-popping plays at second, impressing more than his teammates.
“Their coach said after the game that it was the best game he could ever remember seeing a second baseman play,” Hornback said.
The Chatsworth coach, for the sake of perspective, is former major leaguer Pete Redfern.
But while the team lost, it seems some of Geller’s enthusiasm rubbed off. West immediately embarked on its 20-game win streak.
West could again have been swamped by a midseason crisis. Starters Bobby Kim, Cohen, Marks and Treend went on a one-week vacation to Hawaii in the middle of West’s hot streak. It would be left to Geller and Marine to hold things together.
“I think Pat told Del that we were only allowed to lose one game while they were gone,” Geller said. “I think Coach Hornback would have been happy if we split.”
Keyed by Geller, Marine and the reserves, West went 4-0 for the week and the roll continued into the playoffs. West (28-5) has won 25 of its last 26 games.
“That was the turning point in the season,” Cohen said. “Bobby and I were calling after each game, calling Del to see how they were doing. We couldn’t believe it.
“Coming back on a winning streak pushed the team together, made the chemistry that much better.”
In other words, the team gelled with an assist from Del and Geller.
“Del and I decided we had to talk it up and motivate the pups (reserves) to do well, and we did,” Geller said. “It shows how much depth we have and how anyone can come in at any time and do the job.”
Geller ought to know. Next time, just give him as much advance notice as possible.