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Matadors Get a Little Pitching : Baseball: Freshman Velazco halts Riverside rally and Northridge wins opener, 18-12.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cal State Northridge Coach Bill Kernen went through the obvious checklist as he handed the ball to his wide-eyed freshman pitcher.

Bases loaded. Nobody out.

Game up for grabs.

The obvious and the oblivious.

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“He probably didn’t even hear me,” Kernen said.

Maybe, maybe not. More important, it seems right-hander Carlos Velazco understood.

In his first college game, Velazco bailed out Northridge by striking out the side in the sixth inning to preserve an 18-12 victory over UC Riverside in a nonconference season opener Saturday at Matador Field.

With Benny Flores, another freshman reliever, struggling and Riverside--ranked No. 8 in NCAA Division II--mounting a comeback, Velazco was the lone wolf warming up in the bullpen.

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With two Riverside runs across and Northridge holding a 13-11 lead, Kernen called in Velazco. The freshman from Sylmar High showed surprising poise and guile.

“I was pumped,” Velazco said. “I was ready to go.”

Debut-tiful, Kernen said.

“That’s about as difficult as it can be for a guy making his college debut,” Kernen said. “He’s a gutty little guy. . . . That’s about as good as it gets.”

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Good, but not easy. After he struck out the first two hitters, Velazco worked the count to 3 and 2 on third baseman Eric Smyers, who earlier homered. Smyers leaned on a fastball and sent it curling down the left-field line, but the ball hooked foul by 10 feet.

Ahem. If Velazco’s Adam’s Apple was somewhat constricted, he did a good job of hiding it.

“You know, sometimes (hitters) get all excited about that stuff and act like they beat you,” Velazco said. “But foul balls don’t count. It’s just another strike.”

Strike 3 came on the next pitch, when Velazco fanned Smyers with a nasty curveball. The Matadors, who rolled up 20 hits, scored five times in the sixth to take an 18-11 lead.

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Velazco (1-0) pitched three scoreless innings of composed, hitless relief--to the surprise of very few, actually.

“In practice, he’s a real tiger,” said catcher Robert Fick, who homered and had four hits. “He’s a competitor. He’s cocky and that’s how you have to be.”

Northridge was downright arrogant offensively. Third baseman Jason Shanahan and newcomers Adam Kennedy, Grant Hohman and Fick homered to offset a spotty pitching performance.

Starter John Najar, making his first appearance since breaking a bone in his pitching arm last season, gave up five runs and three homers over three innings. He also hit three batters.

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Flores, a left-hander, gave up six runs in two innings, which included a homer, three walks and three hit batsmen. Yet the offense answered every Riverside challenge.

“This is what we’ve got to do,” said Fick, a sophomore transfer from Ventura College. “We have young pitching. We have to keep hitting until the pitching matures.”

Maturation from several first-time position players didn’t take long at all. Kennedy, a freshman designated hitter, doubled and hit a two-run homer in his first two at-bats. Hohman, a transfer from Harbor College who batted ninth and started at second base, hit a three-run homer in the third to kick-start a seven-run rally that gave Northridge a 13-5 lead.

“When the No. 9 guy hits a homer, then there isn’t much drop-off in the lineup,” Kennedy said.

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Each Northridge starter had at least one hit and six players had two or more. Eric Gillespie, a freshman All-American last season, was four for five.

Despite some lackluster pitching, the Matadors bettered their start of 1994, when they lost their first three games and finished 25-30.

“Beats the alternative,” Kernen said, grinning. “Better than a sharp stick in the eye.”

His players keep swinging their sticks like this, and Kernen may never experience the feeling.

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Matador Notes

Outfielders Heath McElwee and Brian Basowski, junior transfers from Pierce College, will redshirt this season. Casey Cheshire, a freshman catcher from Highland High, also will redshirt.


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