Baseball pitchers historically can be a pampered lot. They are often restricted to pitch counts. have their arms conditioned and watched over as if they were gold ingots. And since they they don’t necessarily play every day, they are not often considered “team leaders’ in the way a position player, i.e. shortstop, catcher or outfielder, is perceived.
Defending City Section Division I champion Birmingham High is flipping the script in 2015.
Two of the team leaders, Adrian Rodriguez and Jonathan Russomano, stand tall on the mound. They pitched the Patriots to 2-1 victory against Chatsworth at Dodger Stadium for the City title last year — the school’s first D-I title since 1969 and fourth overall — and will gladly shoulder the responsibility for getting the Patriots back to the final again and possibly be the first repeat title holder since Chatsworth in 2008 and 2009.
Both seem well-equipped to handle such responsibility. They are seniors who are smart, best friends, competitive and have the inner drive needed to handle the adversity of a season because injuries and slumps are inevitable. As far as Coach Matt Mowry’s concerned, “they are ‘1’ and ‘1-A’” in the pitching staff pecking order.
Meeting the challenges of a new season takes both fortitude and perspective, something both players learned from last year’s title run.
“What I have learned is that each season puts different obstacles in front of you,” said Russomano, 18. “Yes, you want to try and replicate the process as best as possible. But you have to understand that you can’t exactly follow that same, exact pattern because every season has new challenges. Last year it was Chatsworth, El Camino, Narbonne, and Marshall. Those teams have re-adjusted and built their teams up even better than last year. We have incredible talent in our league. There’s great competition. As a team we have to understand we want to follow a similar pattern in some of the things we do, but we have to revolutionize some of our tactics as well.”
“I feel we are held to a higher standard now,” adds Rodriguez, 17. “It makes us more confident as as team. If we’re able to compete with the top teams in California, we can compete with anybody, anywhere. For us to be able to participate in a tournament like [the invitation-only Boras Classic in April] puts our team on a higher level. I feel that’s important for us as far as confidence goes.”
Rodriguez and Russomano aren’t the only key returning players for Mowry this season. Catcher Ryan Mendoza, a junior who has already committed to Long Beach State, and third baseman Edgar Rivas, a junior who moved up from junior varsity, are providing both hits and defense. Also back is sophomore outfielder Justin Rorick, the hero of last year’s title game.
But pitching depth is why “I like our chances” to repeat, Mowry said. The Patriots’ staff includes returners Isaac Meza and Eduardo Rosales, and newcomer Jon Escott, a transfer from Reseda’s Cleveland High.
“Obviously the expectations are there to do well this year,” Mowry said. Still, “there’s no one who will overlook you. Everyone wants to be the team that beats a defending champion. So you have a target on your back. Our guys are embracing that. That’s what you live for, to be that team, people are gunning for. But this is the toughest schedule we’ve played.
“I think with what we have coming back, myself and team feel we can make another legitimate run in the playoffs. With that said, a lot of people like to talk about our championship as ‘them getting hot at the right time.’ So there is a chip on our shoulders to prove it was not a fluke. Before people didn’t fear or respect us. But now you’re coming against the defending champs, and we take pride in that.”
The Patriot’s record was 4-4 after their March 17 loss to Marshall High of Los Angeles. That’s certainly better than the 0-4 start Birmingham had to overcome last year. Russomano insists that, as far as talent, “we are far better than the team that was structured last year. We have more pieces that can benefit the puzzle as a whole, in a more efficient and effective way. [But] that championship team last year was something I’ve never seen before — the coming together, everyone on the same page. We’re still in the process of understanding just how potent we can be.”
Rodriguez agrees. Even though the team has rid itself of any “hangover” from last year’s title run — “myself included” — more will have to be done to get the Patriots back to Dodger Stadium in late May.
“I feel last year we had a close team, and winning it all showed how close we were,” Rodriguez said. “The thing I’m seeing with the new guys [so far] is they want it — it’s a matter of us coming together. I see that in a lot of our games, but I also see a lot of that not happening, too. I feel if we can gel as one, we can accomplish our goal at the end of the season.”