The breezy yet gorgeous spring afternoon could not totally eliminate the pockets of concern hanging over parts of San Fernando High’s baseball field.
Oh, the Tigers were taking care of their business against Van Nuys on Monday, April 3, rolling to a 7-3 victory to stay unbeaten in the Valley Mission League at 5-0. (The teams play again today, April 6, at Van Nuys.) Just as important, they are keeping pace with rival Kennedy, which has played two more league games at this point and is also undefeated in the Valley Mission at 7-0.
But San Fernando knows it needs to find another gear — and soon — if it wants to not only win the league, but to have a legitimate chance at winning the City Section Division I championship game in June.
Its 9-6 overall record is a bit more telling. There are losses to Division I competitors El Camino Real, Cleveland, San Pedro and Venice which could (and probably will) impact their eventual bracket seed. And, quite naturally, it’s also about the way the Tigers have lost.
“We’ve been in every game,” Coach Armando Gomez said. But San Fernando would seemly find some method of ineptitude — the bats going cold or gloves turning to stone — to turn victory into defeat.
The regular season is half over, and the Tigers are still trying to find their footing.
“We’re not where I want us to be right now,” Gomez said after Monday’s game. “We’ve shown flashes of being ‘that’ team. I think me bearing down on them a little bit harder, and with a little more discipline, they’re finally getting it. They were doubting themselves.”
Gomez, who won City titles in 2011 and 2013, has an interesting conundrum to work through with his 2017 squad.
“We’re senior dominated. And I don’t know if their heads are ‘all here,’” he said. “It can happen when you have a senior-dominated team. They’re a little more worried about the future. Our key guys are pressing a little. (Nathan) Cisneros, our leadoff guy and an All-City guy from last year, he’s pressing like no other. We keep telling him to relax. But I think that’s what’s happening [with the seniors]. They have the prom and other distractions on their minds. Usually it’s only 4-5 guys, but it’s our whole team. We only have six underclassmen.”
Two of those underclassmen — Alonzo Castellanos and Steven Villagran — have emerged as leaders.
Castellanos, a sophomore shortstop, is the fourth Castellanos brother to play for Gomez at San Fernando. He played on the junior varsity last year, and Gomez thought enough of his ability that he moved last year’s shortstop Albert Robles, now a senior, over to second base to make room for him.
Castellanos, has nine hits — all singles — in 22 at bats this season but said “I’m struggling a bit” with the bat after going hitless against Van Nuys. But, he added, “Coach Gomez told me he wants me to focus on playing defense; my offense, if I give any, is a plus. I just want to help out not matter what.”
He’s also not being shy about wanting to take a leadership role in the infield or expressing his opinions regarding the state of the team, even though it’s his first varsity season.
“I had to learn a couple of things, but I feel I can handle it now,” Castellanos said. “Just [trying to be] a leader even though I’m a 10th grader. I can learn from some of the older guys and get that leadership from them, then help out the team as much as I can.”
And how does he see his fellow Tigers?
“We’re almost there. We have [a few] more things to work on. The infield has to get quicker. And the hitting, we’ve got to wake up the bats sooner. We can’t be playing late into the games without any runs.”
Villagran, a junior, has the cachet of being a returning All-City player. He doubled and tripled against Van Nuys on Monday, raising his average to .436. His 10 RBIs are second best on the team, and his seven strikeouts are the third fewest.
He also sees room for improvement for San Fernando.
“We’re pretty good. But we could be a better team,” Villagran said. “We could be a championship team … [but] we have to play together as a team. We have to hit. Our pitching has to be [better]. And no errors. Errors always kill us.”
The team’s upcoming annual Easter vacation trip to Las Vegas next week to play in the Durango Spring Break Tournament could be the jumpstart Gomez is looking for.
The Tigers will play at least four games in the tournament, which is known to attract some of the top high school teams in the country. Already scheduled is a double-header against Sierra Vista High of Las Vegas and Bellflower High on April 10, and a matchup against Independence High of Bakersfield on April 11. After that, it depends on how the other tournament teams are doing and what bracket — championship or consolation — the Tigers are in.
Gomez already has some ideas to shake things up.
“In Las Vegas, we’re gonna change the room assignments and breakup some of those [teammates] that always hang out and see where that takes us,” he said. “I think five nights in Vegas will change it up. And usually when we go to Vegas, if we play well there we come back on fire.”
There is also too much of the season left for the Tigers to feel any sort of panic or resignation, he said.
“We play the season to get us ready for four games [in the playoffs]. That’s what we usually do. We’re not quite there yet. But I’d rather not be ‘there’ yet,” Gomez said.
“Do I have big concerns we’re not ‘there’ yet? No. It’s our job as a coaching staff to step it up. But sometimes you also need a wakeup call.”