Talk about a great start.
The Cleveland Cavaliers baseball team is thisclose to perfection.
How close? Try 19 wins in the first 20 games. as well as taking an overall 11-game winning streak into this week’s West Valley League action.
Raw data would suggest this is a better team than the one that reached the City Section Division I final last year, losing to league rival El Camino Real, 4-3, at Dodger Stadium. But the Cavs themselves say it’s too early for such proclamations. That they haven’t played the toughest of schedules. That they still must measure themselves against Chatsworth and the defending champion Conquistadors in league play. That even with several returning starters, it essentially remains a young team.
“A great start? We’re not looking at that,” pitching coach Sid Lopez said. “All we’re looking at is being able to compete. The reason we’re winning is because we’re able to compete, and it starts on the mound.”
Ah, yes. Pitching. The one aspect of the game that Cleveland feels it is on par with most City teams — and maybe even ahead.
Lopez, who has coached at high schools and colleges for 30-plus years, has what he describes as a “very simple” formula for winning the arms race. Throw strikes. One after another. Attack and control the strike zone, challenge hitters, and make them earn their way on base. He wants opponents swinging, not viewing.
Those who pitch for Cleveland must be willing to throw at least two pitches — preferably fastball and changeup — consistently for strikes. Anything else is “frosting on the cake” as he likes to say. And the throwing program Lopez teaches here, which he appropriated from UCLA head coach John Savage, reinforces that doctrine daily.
“All the years I was teaching the mechanics of pitching, I didn’t realize [at first] it was very simple: it’s all about being able to throw properly,” Lopez said. “And you can do that when you play catch. We do it every day (except Sunday).
“We’re not flame throwers, we’re strike throwers. We teach them how to command a fastball, and teach them how to command the changeup. We’re not looking for anybody who’s out to be a ‘superstar.’ We’re looking for guys who can command at least two pitches. And in high school, that’s huge. There aren’t many opportunities for guys to get on base unless they make contact. So ‘command’ is a big word, because not many people can command the ball. And we’re a stickler for that.”
Pitch in the Strike Zone. Up or down, inside or outside — as long as it is in the Zone. Lopez abhors walks primarily because, to him, it’s wasteful pitching.
“We don’t have a guy throwing 90 miles per hour. But how successful was Greg Maddux all his life?” said Lopez, referring to the Hall of Famer who won 355 games in 23 Major League Baseball seasons. “We’re looking for guys who can spot the ball. Now there are certain times we don’t want to pitch to guys, and I don’t mind a walk in the right circumstance. But we challenge people.”
Cleveland has at least six players who pitch regularly, led by junior right-hander Sam Villa (7-0, 0.60 earned run average). Villa was the losing pitcher at Dodger Stadium, and is looking for a return trip. He said he has soaked up the concepts that Lopez presents to the team.
“Just working on the throwing program has helped a lot. It’s improved all the pitchers,” Villa said. “For me, it opened my mind, and helped me out a lot more. Before, my changeup wasn’t so good. But working on it everyday has gotten me better.”
Meanwhile, outfielder Chris Gonzalez, a senior, is the team’s leading hitter with a .358 batting average. Besides the pitching tenents for Villa and the staff, Gonzalez said the Cleveland batters strive to get the team ahead as quickly as possible to make its pitching even more effective.
“We also try to be aggressive and not waste pitches,” said Gonzalez, who also has 20 RBIs and eight stolen bases. “We try to get our pitchers early runs and take some pressure off of them.”
The only time the formula has not worked was on March 9, when the Cavaliers lost an 8-0 tournament road game to Notre Dame and it’s standout junior Hunter Greene, a flame thrower whose fastball can touch 94 mph. Cleveland only got one hit against Hunter in five innings.
“We were intimidated by [Greene],” Gonzalez said. “He’s really good and everybody was just intimidated. We should’ve taken things more seriously instead of being all scared. We face good pitching every week in league. But we didn’t have a good approach against him, and we should’ve worked a little harder on that.”
Cleveland has already endured greater adversity. Scott Drootin was the head coach, but he has been suspended because of an alleged confrontation with a player. No one at Cleveland will talk about it — “We really can’t while the (Los Angeles Unified School) district investigates,” said interim baseball head coach Greg Venger — but players said privately they held a meeting and vowed not to let the alleged incident become a distraction.
So far it hasn’t. But after their two games with Taft this week and an April 16 tournament game against Westchester of Los Angeles, the schedule gets harder — including upcoming dates against Chatsworth and El Camino Real. All three teams began the week unbeaten in league, and the West Valley championship — as well as high seedings in the City Division I playoff bracket — probably come down to how the trio plays against each other.
Villa believes that having reached the City final last year will boost the Cavaliers in their chase for glory this season, despite the loss of key seniors Ben Kaser, Raudel Martinez and Alex Zepeda to graduation.
“Almost the whole starting lineup came back,” Villa said. ““Most of us carried on this season thinking about all the good stuff we did before, and we know that we can get back to Dodger Stadium again.”
If they do, the Cavaliers plan to throw a bunch of arms and strikes at the opponent.