Coaching baseball is less stressful and more fun these days for Corona del Mar High's John Emme. A lot of that has to do with this being the 54-year-old's final season with the Sea Kings.
Another reason why Emme feels the way he does in his 21st season is he has a pitcher like Tommy Wilcox. Whenever Emme starts Wilcox on the mound, one run is really all CdM needs to win.
The way Wilcox is throwing, Emme can rely on the right-hander to blank the opposition. And that's what the 6-foot-4 junior did again on Tuesday.
Wilcox tossed his fourth straight shutout, and the Sea Kings won 2-0 at Northwood. He has thrown 31 straight scoreless innings, 24 of those coming in Pacific Coast League play.
Wilcox helped the defending league champion Sea Kings (15-5, 8-2 in league) stay a game back of first-place Beckman (17-3-1, 9-1). His scoreless-innings streak began on March 27, in the fifth inning of a 12-1 win against Irvine.
Ever since that fifth inning, Wilcox has struck out 27, given up 21 hits, walked seven and hit one. Three of his four shutouts have also been close games, and Wilcox showed how to pitch out of trouble in his latest outing.
The University of Tennessee commit let his infield make plays and it backed him up by turning double plays in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings. Fielding grounders at Northwood is almost as hard as its infield.
"It's kind of like playing in a parking lot," said Wilcox, who improved to 7-1 after striking out eight, scattering eight hits and walking two in his fifth straight complete game. "Ground balls … can bounce right in front of home plate and then land in the outfield. It can be tough."
Wilcox found himself in a tough spot in the bottom of the seventh. He gave up a leadoff single to Carl Espe, then the next batter, Trevor Littlejohn, got on because of an error.
After falling behind 3-1 to Ely Stuart, Wilcox got Stuart to hit a grounder to shortstop J.T. Schwartz. The UCLA-bound senior quickly threw the ball to second to Reece Berger, who fired to first baseman Chazz Martinez to complete a double play.
One pitch later and a runner on third, Darren Shorter grounded out to shortstop to end the game. The Sea Kings, ranked No. 6 in the CIF Southern Section Division 2 poll, became the second team in five days to edge the third-place Timberwolves (15-6, 5-5), No. 7 in Division 3, in a low-scoring affair.
"Just lucky," Wilcox said of how he got out of jams, including one with the bases loaded and one out in the third inning, when he struck out a batter and induced a grounder for the second and third outs. "The defense played great.
"This one felt good, just because I felt like I didn't have my best stuff, but I was kind of able to battle through it."
Wilcox found himself in a pitchers' duel with 6-4 senior Julian Tristan, who struck out 10 while allowing two unearned runs, hitting two and walking one in six innings. The game was scoreless through five innings, and then CdM took advantage of three Northwood mistakes in the sixth.
First baseman Ben Berkel committed two errors on grounders, allowing the first two hitters, Martinez and Luc Stuka, to reach base. Martinez stole second before Stuka got on, and he advanced to third on the fielding error. On Tristan's wild pitch, Martinez came home to score the game's first run.
The Sea Kings added a second run on Berger's RBI single to center. The hit marked only one of three given up by Tristan, a Santa Clara University signee.
"This is what [the CIF Southern Section Division 2] playoffs are going to be," Emme said. "[Tristan] shoved it to us [in Northwood's 5-1 win at CdM] last year, so it was good to be able to get a couple [of runs]. I told the kids one run was probably going to be the difference, and it pretty much was."
The Sea Kings can sweep the three-game series with the Timberwolves when they host them on Friday at 3:30 p.m. Emme plans to start Martinez, a senior left-hander bound for UC Santa Barbara.
Martinez and Wilcox have contributed to CdM winning 13 of its last 14 games. The successful run began on March 20, the day after Emme told his team that he was retiring after the season.
"I'm just excited to go on a great run with these guys," said Emme, who would love to end his coaching career by leading the Sea Kings to their third section title under his watch. "Whether [my retirement] has anything to do with it or not, the kids have played very well since I've told them. I'm definitely savoring every moment."