The sun is bearing down on the San Fernando High baseball field on this unseasonably warm February afternoon. But Coach Armando Gomez, sitting in a dugout as the players get ready for practice, isn’t feeling any heat physically or metaphorically.
Nor should he. The Tigers may have tumbled back to Earth last season after winning the 2013 Los Angeles City Section’s Division I title, but Gomez is in firm control of the program and is one of the Valley’s (and City’s) most respected coaches. He’d have to have several bad or so-so years in a row for that grip to slip.
However, that doesn’t mean Gomez isn’t feeling restless over his team’s overall 17-14 record, second place finish in the Valley Mission League and second round playoff loss to Granada Hills (after a first round bye) in 2014. The Tigers should have been better than their record, he said, in fact they should have been closer to defending their title. The only thing Gomez might have changed, knowing what he knows now, was the severity of last year’s schedule since San Fernando never got any traction during the season.
“I still don’t want to think it was too tough. We were so senior-dominated last year I thought the kids could handle that,” Gomez said. “I think it messed with their egos more than anything else — they went through a stretch were they weren’t believing in themselves. I think that hurt us. I want to play the best all the time, but sometimes you have to be realistic. In all my years of coaching, last year was the first time [the schedule] affected us in that way.”
Okay, that was last year. What about this year?
“I like this team,” he said. “Some of our coaches aren’t fully sold on it yet. But I am and they’ll trust me. They’re a little worried we’re not peaking yet. But you don’t want to peak in February…I strongly believe in our team.”
He certainly believes in the starting lineup. “Our best nine guys I’ll put against anybody’s best nine,” Gomez said. But he also stated that his core group of seniors — shortstop/ pitcher Kai Gomez, catcher Jaime Robles, outfielder Anthony Robles, and infielders Eddie Mendez and Oscar Garcia — must consistently produce if the Tigers are to reach Dodger Stadium (tentatively on May 30) and play for a third title in five years.
“Those are our key guys,” the coach said. “They have to step up. They’re our core.”
Kai, 17, will be under the most pressure — and not just because he is the head coach’s son. Most of his pitching assignments will be against the opponent’s top starter. He and his father were criticized last year when Gomez started Kai against Granada Hills instead of his top starter Alonzo Garcia. The sniping grew louder when the Tigers lost the game.
“With the ups-and-downs we had last year guys starting pointing fingers,” Gomez said. “My kid got a bit of a shaft on that — ‘why is he throwing the first game of the playoffs?’ — and he threw well enough to win. He was throwing better than Alonzo at the end of the season. But then we lose and all the Monday Morning Quarterbacks come out: ‘why didn’t I go with my No. 1 starter?’ Well, both times we won the City title (in 2011 and 2013) we started our No. 2 starter in the first playoff game.”
For his part Kai is trying to be as prepared as possible, spending plenty of time in the weight room during the offseason to become stronger. He’s also trying to have a thicker skin and not worry as much about outside opinions.
“I’m more mature,” Kai said. “Last year I was trying to find my role on the team. This year I know my role.
“Last year it helped me to learn from Alonzo. I pitched in the second half of last year. I’ve been working in the bullpen, getting my pitches down. And I have the confidence in myself for the tough teams we will go against.”
Teammates Oscar Garcia and Anthony Robles, both 18, say they are ready to share the pressure of expectations and push their younger teammates to the levels needed to reach the championship.
“Because we’ve won a ring before, we can let them know how good it feels and the positive energy you need to win one,” Anthony Robles said. “We have to tell them it’s a great feeling just to be on the field at Dodger Stadium.”
“We’ve got a lot of JV guys (coming up to varsity),” added Oscar Garcia. “We have to get them to see how important it is to win and how much fun it is, actually. We have to come together and be one big team and happy family.”
The players all agree the team needs to have a fast start to the season, because its easier for newer guys to become discouraged and disconnected if things aren’t going their way early.
“We need a good start, and have some momentum,” Kai said. “We’re young, so it’s about getting momentum up to Easter Break, then play a tough tournament (in Las Vegas during spring break), come back to play Sylmar the second week, and then the last two league games with Kennedy. We need to roll through the second part of the season and we’ll be good.”
“We need to gel more as a team, and our bats need to wake up a little more,” noted Anthony Robles. “Last year we were good offensively, but when we needed the bats, it just didn’t happen. We have the bats now. We have more guys that are clutch, maybe more than last year. But we need to keep developing.”
San Fernando opens the season Feb. 28 at home against Palisades of Pacific. While the schedule isn’t as formidable as last year, there will be nonleague challenges from Notre Dame, El Camino Real, Marshall of Los Angeles, Verdugo Hills and Carson among others. Valley Mission League foes Sylmar and defending champion Kennedy also stand in the way of success during the regular season.
As always there will be plenty to watch and plenty to ponder.
That, in a nutshell, is Tigers baseball in 2015.