I’m sure you comics out there are reflecting on how Poly Baseball is seemingly flying under the radar this season, with all the City Section Division I attention in the Valley being paid to red-hot Cleveland, defending champion El Camino Real, and other obvious contenders like Chatsworth and San Fernando.
But the Parrots have quietly put together a solid 2016 season. They are on the verge of wrapping up the East Valley League, holding a three-game lead over Verdugo Hills and North Hollywood with four league games left to play. They take a 16-9 overall record and a six-game winning streak, as well as eight wins in their last nine games, into this week’s home-and-home series with Monroe. And if playoffs were starting today they could be looking at a seventh, sixth, or possibly a fifth seed.
What the Parrots are, Coach Gabriel Cerna said, is a tight-knit group that has played two or three varsity seasons together. They enjoy each other’s company. They believe collectively in playing the game a certain way, concentrating on pitching and defense. And the players are also putting in an effort in the classroom; several could have college in their future, even if they don’t continue playing.
“This group has had the most camaraderie in the seven years I’ve been here,” said Cerna, who’s now the athletic director. “They stand together as one. They’ve been a really fun unit to coach. I never have to remind them about working out in the weight room. Or make sure they do their homework.”
If no one outside of Poly High or the East Valley League is that well versed in who the Parrots are, and what they’re doing, Cerna said that’s okay, too.
“To us it doesn’t matter,” Cerna said. “We just go about our business, and that’s the thing we preach to our guys. We perform when we’re supposed to perform. And we are gelling at the right time.”
The confidence has filtered down from Cerna and the assistant coaches to the players.
“Everybody’s focus is ‘this is going to be our year,’” said pitcher Alex Leon (4-2, 2.29 ERA), 16, a junior who’s part of the longtime varsity core here. “We’re going out there every day, playing with our hearts, giving it our all. We are always a family here. Everybody gets along, everybody has each other’s back.”
What has also worked this season, according to pitcher Manny Rivera, is playing better in nonleague games. Poly might be 7-9 overall, but many of the games have been close; two of the losses, to Venice and Roosevelt of Los Angeles, happened in the final inning.
Then “there was a game against San Pedro,” said Rivera (6-2, 2.43 ERA), 18, a senior. “We were down by a run, but we stuck with it; everyone believed and we came back to win. We’ve played some good teams and weren’t really as separated from them as much as we were when we were freshmen.
“We don’t get the same respect as teams from the West Valley. But I feel that, if we play to our full potential, we can make a good run [at a City championship].”
Poly’s offense has benefited by the return of rightfielder Jesus Carranza (.366 with a team best 26 hits). Carranza, 17, a senior, said he felt “burned out” as a sophomore, and didn’t play. But he realized he missed the game.
“I didn’t go to every game, but I would check in on how they were doing,” Carranza said. And when assistant coach Andy Montes rejoined the staff, Carranza was eager to return. “He called me to make sure I came during the summer.”
Carranza agreed the team bond is strong. “As a group we can make fun of each other, and stuff like that. But we all know we’re just messing around. It’s never personal.”
Of course every season needs a cornerstone, a game or a play that galvanizes the group into a higher level of belief. For Poly, it was a shutting out Valencia, 1-0, on March 3 in the Easton Tournament.
“It’s the [kind of win] that makes me think we can do well in the playoffs,” Carranza said.
But it was the Valencia victory that also eventually led the season’s lone scary moment. Winning pitcher Danny Pimienta (2-1, 0.94 ERA), struck out 12 in the game — “his coming out party,” Cerna said — but was less successful in his next start against Oaks Christian of Westlake Village. Frustrated by the 4-2 loss, Pimiento slammed his pitching hand into a wall and broke the knuckle of his pinky finger.
The left-hander, a junior, got the cast removed on Monday, April 18. With six total games left on the schedule, there is enough time to re-integrate Pimienta back into the rotation and make the Parrots’ staff stronger come playoff time.
It has Poly, whose main strengths are pitching and defense, eager to show they are among the contenders to wind up in the Division I final at Dodger Stadium on May 28.
As well as the Parrots are playing now, is there any chance they could be peaking too soon?
“Our pitching just has to keep doing what it’s doing, especially against the teams that have good pitching,” Carranza said. “We’ll have to keep them down.”