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Estrella Lands in the Middle of Something Good

Luis Estrella is succeeding at one of baseball’s thankless roles, middle relief pitching.

Estrella, a right-hander who attended Saddleback High, Rancho Santiago College and Cal State Fullerton before being drafted by the San Francisco Giants last year, is 5-2 with a 4.54 earned-run average and one save with the Class-A San Jose Giants.

In his third season of pro ball, Estrella has nearly equaled last year’s victory total. He was 5-5, with a 3.39 ERA, and two saves in 42 games.

A 20-pound weight loss in the off-season not only made Estrella fitter but, he claims, also increased his velocity.

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“My energy level is the same,” Estrella said. “I’ve always been kind of high strung. But since losing weight my balance is better and I’ve found a better arm angle from which to throw.”

Estrella has 35 strikeouts compared to only 11 walks in 35 2/3 innings. Against the Modesto A’s on June 11, he struck out three and walked none in two hitless innings of relief.

Bryan Hickerson, San Jose pitching coach, said Estrella also has to remember to calm more than his anxieties to be effective.

“He always wants the ball, which is good,” Hickerson said. “But he wants to do everything quickly, and I mean everything. He has good stuff. When he slows himself down, he can have great stuff.”

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No matter, Estrella is pleased by his quick start, even though--because of the nature of his role in middle relief--he never knows when he will pitch.

“I tend to finish a season stronger than I start,” Estrella said. “Last year I hit a lull in the middle of the year but had my best stuff during the last month of the season. And it feels like I carried that over into this season.”

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The Vigilantes took a chance on outfielder Phil Kernan and so far it’s paying off.

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The Mission Viejo team drafted Kernan from the Salinas franchise, which is not active this season.

Kernan had separated his right shoulder last June, tried to play through it and wound up with a torn rotator cuff. He came back in August, only as a designated hitter.

Kernan, who hit .257 with four homers in 52 games last season, underwent arthroscopic surgery in the fall to repair the torn rotator cuff.

Although he is still undergoing rehabilitation, Kernan already is paying off for the Vigilantes. In 18 games he is batting .333. He’s matched last year’s home-run total and has 13 RBIs. And Kernan provides protection in the lineup for Alan Burke, who is among the Western Baseball League leaders in home runs (seven) and RBIs (25).

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Kernan said the big change for him this season has been a willingness to hit to all fields.

“I get in trouble when I only think ‘pull,’ ” he said. “The pitchers here do come inside but many don’t really have the velocity to beat you. So I’m trying to wait on the ball, and go with the pitch.”

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Benny Flores, the Big West Conference pitcher of the year last season for Cal State Fullerton, reported to the Boston Red Sox rookie league team in Lowell, Mass., Sunday, eager to begin his professional career.

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“I don’t recall pitching in a situation before with the hitters using wooden bats,” Flores said. “They used a composite of fiberglass and wood in one of the summer leagues I pitched in once, but not just the regular wooden bat.”

After going against metal bats in college and high school, Flores says he will welcome the change.

“Hopefully, it will work in my favor,” Flores said. “In some of the parks we played, especially when the wind was blowing out, the aluminum bats really made it tough. Some of those home runs in college don’t go out with a wood bat.”

Flores, who was 12-0 with a 3.52 ERA last season, gave up only 10 home runs in 122 innings, but three were in one inning against Louisiana State in the NCAA regional at Baton Rouge.

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The Lowell Spinners open their New York-Penn League season today.

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Three former Titans are playing this season for Kansas City’s triple-A farm club in Omaha.

Jeremy Giambi plays left field, and Jeremy Carr is in center. Steve Sisco can play any of the infield positions or in the outfield but has been used this season mostly at third base.

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Giambi is batting .368 with five home runs and 22 runs batted in in 55 games. He also has seven stolen bases in 11 attempts. Carr has played in 31 games and is batting .281 with three homers and 13 RBIs. He has 10 bases in 13 attempts. Sisco is batting .234 with four homers and 12 RBIs in 37 games.

Times staff writer Lon Eubanks contributed to this report.


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