It’s a perfect day for baseball, this sun-drenched, almost cloud free Tuesday afternoon on March 15. I’m headed to San Fernando High to get a look at the Tigers playing neighborhood rival Sylmar in the Valley Mission League opener for both, which would be reason enough to lather up with SPF 30, munch a hot dog, and try to find a section of the metal bleachers that isn’t already hot enough to fry bacon.
I also want to get a look at a sophomore player Coach Armando Gomez is very high on.
His name is Steven Villagran, a soft-spoken 16-year-old who plays outfield and pitches. Villagran has a good if not overpowering fastball that he locates pretty well, and a breaking ball he occasionally telegraphs. What stands out is a preternatural calm that surrounds him, both at the plate and on the mound.
“He may be our best player,” Gomez said.
Normally it’s not good if a 10th-grader is your best varsity player. It can mean your team is young; and the 2016 Tigers are somewhat young, with 11 juniors on their 21-player varsity roster (with Villagran the only sophomore). It could also mean your team isn’t very good or experienced and the coaches are playing kids, already looking forward to the next season.
That’s not San Fernando, whose record improved to 5-2, 1-0 with a taut 3-2 victory this day against the visiting Spartans. Gomez expects to compete for the Valley Mission League title and has other players he’s expecting big things from, like infielder Kevin Gallo, a junior, “who has the best hands of any infielder I’ve had in about 20 years,” and outfielder Nathan Cisneros, a junior, “who is faster than fast and will catch anything in center.”
Others to watch this season, according to Gomez, are senior infielders Alex Hernandez and Albert Robles, and senior outfielder Marcus Rebolledo.
But the conversation swings back toward Villagran. And it was easy to see why on this day.
Villagran would pitch a seven-inning complete game, giving up just two hits. He also had two of San Fernando’s seven hits off Sylmar starter Andrew Ochoa.
“He’s pretty special,” He’s like Alonzo (Garcia, a standout pitcher on the 2013 City championship team): a straight-A student who never says a word.
“The last time I had a 10th grader this good? It’s been a long time. Probably Alonzo. I knew he would be special in 10th grade, but not like this kid. Alonzo’s been the best kid I’ve had other than my own kid, as far as an all-around person. But I think Steven outdoes both of them.”
Villagran only played half a baseball season last year because he was also playing football as a freshman. This year he’s decided to concentrate on baseball. The decision is a positive one so far: He’s 3-0, with wins against Banning and Garfield as well as Sylmar.
He’s become the Tigers’ No.1 starter.
“We just wanted to throw him against Banning (a 4-2 victory on Feb.17) for a loop, just to see somebody different, and he was lights out,“ Gomez said.
Villagran — who struck out four, walked four, and hit a batter — was staked to a 2-0 lead after three innings, but struggled in the fourth. Sylmar (5-6, 0-1) tied the game on an RBI single by Mario Cruz, and a wild pitch by Villagran that allowed Christian Ruiz to score.
But San Fernando got the lead back in the bottom of the fourth when Cisneros scored from second, on the second of Gallo’s two doubles.
Villagran needed one last key play. Sylmar threatened again in the sixth, with runners on second and third with one out. Ruiz thought he’d hit a deep enough fly to right to again tie the game. But Rebolledo uncorked a perfect throw to nip Josh Meza at the plate.
Naturally the Spartans fans howled. The Tigers fans cheered. Villagran remained expressionless.
It was expected that Gomez would lift his young pitcher after that, and start the seventh inning with a fresh arm. Yet there was Villagran back on the mound ready to close it out.
“I could see it his eyes that he wanted to go back out there. He’s a gamer,” said Gomez.
Then he uttered three more revealing words.
“I trust him.”
Villagran verified Gomez’s faith, retiring the Spartans in order for the victory. He’s now won all three of his starts this season, giving up a total of 13 hits and seven runs — four earned — in 21 innings this season. That computes to a 1.71 ERA
Villagran was so excited by his performance that, after shaking hands with Sylmar, he took off to the outfield for postgame running.
Gomez brought him back to the Tigers dugout to chat with a visitor.
“Coach leaving me in the game showed a lot of confidence in me,” Villagran said. “I just had to go out there and do my thing. The defense was going to back me up. We all have confidence in the defense. It’s amazing.”
Hmmmm. No chest-beating or holding up the proceedings to take selfies. Villagran was so matter-of-fact about his effort, I was tempted to grab his wrist and check for a pulse.
Of course this was only the first Valley Mission League game. Sylmar will get a rematch on their field today, March 17. And then next week, the Tigers will spend their Spring Break in Las Vegas playing at least three games in the prestigious Durango Tournament. Gomez is already thinking of starting Villagran in the Tuesday night game against host Durango High.
There will be times when the struggle is more than an inning. Villagran might actually lose a game or two after enough teams see him and figure out the best way to attack him.
But it seems a safe bet that Villagran won’t get too visibly upset or rattled. And the more experienced he becomes, well…let’s just say the possibilities must be exciting the San Fernando faithful.
Can a sophomore be a leader?
For a split second Villagran looks uncertain.
“It depends. If a sophomore has leadership, I believe so. I don’t have it yet, but I’m slowly gaining it from the seniors.”
He already has one key supporter in Gomez.