M. Terry / SFVS

Big Time Cats — Kennedy High pitchers Felix Rubi (left) and Gilbert Hernandez (right) will depend on catcher Chris Sandberg (center) and their other teammates to help them get through a tough five-game stretch.

This is a crucial week for the Kennedy Golden Cougars.

They are playing five games in an eight-day stretch. It began on Saturday, April 25, with a 2-0 victory over Chaminade at Granada Hills High, as part of the Chatsworth Classic tournament. It continued Monday, April 27, as the Cougars overwhelmed Panorama, 37-0, in Valley Mission League play, with another game against Panorama scheduled at Kennedy on Wednesday.  That’s followed by a  nonleague game against Poly today, April 30, and one final Chatsworth Classic game against Westlake on Saturday, May 2.

“We had this also in the beginning of the season, playing a lot of games in a short amount of days,” said Kennedy Coach Andy Rodriguez. “Like I tell the kids: it is what it is, and you’ve got to go out and play. Make sure you get plenty of rest, and play. That’s all we can do.”

The nonleague, non-tournament match with Poly, on the heels of two league games, might seem strange this late in the regular season. But it is also important. The Parrots and Cougars are both in Division I, and the winner will have a head-to-head edge going into the seeding meeting next week. That outcome could be crucial if both teams win their leagues.

“When you schedule nonleague games, you have to go by what’s available (playing dates) for both,” Rodriguez said. “You kind of look and see who you’re playing that week. No disrespect to Panorama, but it was here we thought we could get the Poly game in. And when the Poly game was originally planned, we hadn’t foreseen the tournament game with Westlake at that time.”

What adds to the degree of difficulty is the specter of next week’s opponent: San Fernando. The Cougars (16-10, 9-0 through April 28) and Tigers are both clear of every other league team, so they will decide the Valley Mission championship — with an outright winner expecting to get one of the top four seeds in the upcoming  City Division I playoffs.

But that’s next week. Rodriguez and his team, naturally, can’t even think about that showdown yet even though the neighborhood rivalry is never far from eithers’ team’s collective minds.

So what Rodriguez and staff have to manage is the amount of innings their four main starting pitchers — Felix Rubi, Gilbert Hernandez, Marco Rojas and Noah Valenzuela — wind up throwing while trying to win. They also have to make sure the position players aren’t overused so they go into the May 4 and May 6 games against San Fernando sharp and focused.

What excites Rodriguez is the Cougars — having won eight straight through April 27 — are finally rounding into the kind of team he thought they might be back in February.

“I think we are hitting our stride,” the coach said. “We struggled early on — we just weren’t playing well…but I thought if our bats came around after having played some of the tougher teams we had on the schedule we’d be okay. And I think we’re getting close.”

One of the things the Cougars had to get past was the departure of Nick Rodriguez, who graduated last June. The shortstop was a strong presence on and off the field.

“Those were some big shoes to fill,” noted Rubi (5-3, 2.10, four shutouts), 17, a senior. “Nick was a big part of this team. We had some questions about who was going to come in and play shortstop. But as the season went on, we were trusting who was out there.

“I feel good about where we are now.”

So does catcher Chris Sandberg (.359, 16 RBIs), 17, a senior, who has a scholarship waiting for him at Azusa Pacific. He, too, will be keeping a close eye on the pitchers this week, making sure they don’t get out of rhythm or try to compensate for fatigue by altering their throwing motions, which could cause an injury.

“The starters are different,” Sandberg said. “There are some who really hit their spots really well, like Felix. Gilbert, at times, can get a little wild, but that makes him harder to hit because you don’t know what to expect next.

“I’m a little concerned about the wear-and-tear on these guys because of how much they throw. But I also feel we have a very good chance of going deep into the season with these guys.”

Hernandez (5-3, 1.11, three shutouts) said he and Rubi have been playing together since they were small kids, and push each other to achieve. They combined for the win against Chaminade. Rubi started and pitched 6.1 innings, and Hernandez got the last two outs for the save.

“That Chaminade game was really big for us,” said Hernandez, 18, a senior. “I’m sure everyone expected us to lose that game.”

And perhaps, Hernandez felt, it was good the Cougars couldn’t dwell on the win nor get caught up in the number of games it still had to play. “You can’t really think of it as anything different. You have to keep going out and working hard, keep doing what you do, and pretend it’s like any other day.”

At least the end of the regular season is in sight. And the Cougars are rolling right now. In fact, instead of wearing down Kennedy, the opposite could happen. If the team has extended its winning streak to 11 after Saturday, the Cougars could be riding a huge wave of confidence going into the final week with San Fernando — followed by the playoffs.

Again, they still have to finish off this week first. But Rubi said the Cougars are up to the task.

“We’ve got a lot of expectations for this team, so something like this shouldn’t bother us,” he said. “But we still have to be focused and play.”

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