For those baseball fans who expected the West Valley League title chase to be simply divvied up between Chatsworth and El Camino Real, the Cleveland High Cavaliers would like a moment of your time.
Going into the final week of the regular season, the league race is a three-team affair. Cleveland and El Camino began the week with identical 7-1 league records. Chatsworth was third at 6-2. The Cavaliers and Conquistadors played their final two games against each other on Tuesday, May 5, and today, May 7. The Chancellors’ last two games are against Granada Hills on Tuesday and Thursday.
The Cavaliers don’t have time to gloat or deal the “no respect” card — there’s still too much at stake. But there is some satisfaction on how 2015 has played out so far, considering some pundits had predicted a last place finish for Cleveland in league.
“I definitely had confidence in this team,” said third baseman Raudel Martinez, Jr., 18, a senior. “It’s a great group of guys to be around, so I definitely had confidence. All we had to do was work hard, practice hard, and practice how you play.”
“Last year we [also] got ranked really low before the season,” added outfielder Alex Zepeda, 18, a senior. “This year we knew we were better, and were tired of it. We wanted to prove everyone wrong and worked our butts off.”
El Camino Real’s 9-2 victory at Cleveland on Tuesday, ending the Cavalier’s five-game winning streak, gave the Conquistadors sole possession of first place, and has put the pressure on the Cavaliers to beat them today on ECR’s home field. That could seem a daunting task: Cleveland, 21-10 overall, has been a better team at home (11-3) than on the road (9-7). But the Cavs believe they are better equipped to handle this kind of pressure than the 2014 squad that went 16-15.
“There was some rebuilding last year. We only started one senior,” said Coach Scott Drootin, who took over for Greg Venger a year ago. “This year … at beginning our hitters were trying to do too much and did not hit as well. But our hitting coach kept preaching to stay within themselves. We’d had selfish at-bats. And they bought into the fact we had to have more ‘team’ at-bats. Now we are getting great pitching, hitting and timely defense.”
Still, the week can end up clean or complicated. El Camino Real could be the outright West Valley champion if it wins. There could be a three-way tie should the series be split and Chatsworth wins twice against Granada. Then again, Cleveland could slide to third in league if it loses again and Chatsworth wins twice.
There’s more. Should El Camino Real win the league outright, it expects to receive the top seed in the upcoming City Section Division I playoffs to be released on Monday, May 11. The second place team could still be in the top four. The third place team, depending on who it is, could fall as far as an eighth or ninth seed depending on how the other teams are slotted.
Meaning there’s more at stake than just bragging rights.
The Cavaliers, in all likelihood, will give the ball to right-hander Ben Kaser today. Kaiser, 18, a senior, last pitched a complete game, 7-2 victory against Birmingham on May 1. He will bring a nasty slider and a calm constitution in facing the Conquistador hitters. Like Martinez and Zepeda, Kaser likes the makeup of his teammates. He won’t go as far as to say they are the equal of the 2013 team that played for the City championship at Dodger Stadium, because this group of Cavs still have to get there. But Kaser sees the potential.
“This team is capable of a similar kind of run if we keep playing the way we’ve been playing,” Kaser said. “Keep the bats hot, keep our defense playing great — and I think we’ll be good.”
Whatever the results today, and the seeding shakeout on Monday, remember one other thing. The Cavs are primarily a team of sophomores and juniors. Kaser, Martinez and Zepeda are the main core of (healthy) seniors who will graduate. In some respects, Cleveland might actually be a year ahead in its development.
Kaser, Martinez and Zepeda don’t have a “next year.” Their “moment” is now. And it is incumbent upon them to keep “the moment” against El Camino Real from overwhelming their teammates and stunting their playoff hopes.
“We’ll work hard this whole week,” Martinez promised. “We want to, obviously, stay on top. But we also want to keep putting in that same effort we’ve been putting in all year. We don’t want to change anything; we want to keep the momentum going our way.”
Zepeda said the team must stay upbeat and energized.
“(Going to Dodger Stadium in 2013) was such a fun experience. I loved being in the dugout, cheering everyone on and being that guy to pump everyone up. So I try to get the younger guys uplifted in the dugout. There’s such a different feeling when you come off the field to a dugout that’s pumped up than when everyone’s quiet.”