Armando Gomez likes it when the San Fernando Tigers base-ball team plays with an edge. Not chippy or dirty, just hard and focused. And the San Fernando coach really likes it when he and the Tigers feel they are being disrespected.
Well, the Valley Mission League champions now have a gargantuan-sized chip to put on their collective shoulders courtesy of the Los Angeles City Section. The baseball playoff committee on Monday, May 14, did put San Fernando into the top-level Open Division as expected. But the Tigers (18-8-1) were seeded 10th among the 12 teams chosen. For their first round game today, May 17, San Fernando will travel to San Pedro to play the Pirates, seeded seventh. And that’s about the farthest City team the Tigers would have to travel to play, if you’re going south down the 405 (and eventually 110) freeway.
Can’t wait, Gomez said. Can’t wait for this group of Tigers to have a chance to prove themselves.
“(The Open Division is) where we want to play anyway,” the coach said. “There was talk about the football team being in the [Division I title game], but our program is beyond that point. Even if we were 12th, I’m okay with that. And I like the way we’re playing right now.. We’re getting hot at the right time. Both in 2011 and 2013 (when San Fernando won the title), that’s what we did. I like our chances. I’m fired up.”
The players are sounding eager for the postseason as well.
“We’re all com-petitive, so we want the Open Division. And if we play like we can, we’ll get some wins.,” said catcher J.D. Lawrence.
“To me, I’d love to compete against the top schools,” added third baseman Brandon Cabrera. “There’s no team we fear. The mistakes we were making earlier, we’re not making now.”
It’s not often that a decorated baseball program like the one at San Fernando High can be considered an afterthought. But not much was said about the Tigers in 2018. Kennedy got off to a good start, Chatsworth had a new coach and was winning as usual; and besides, the West Valley League teams have been winning the City Section Division I championships of late. It was no surprise that West Valley teams Cleveland, Chatsworth, Birmingham and El Camino Real were given the top four Open Division seeds.
But San Fernando, which has won its last seven games, will not be tip-toeing into the playoffs. Not now. When the season began back in February, however, the Tigers got off to a 2-5-1 start which included losses to San Pedro and Sylmar, and were looking like a ‘wait –til-next-year’ kind of team.
“After we lost the first Sylmar game I was a little down,” Gomez said. “And [as a team] we were up-and-down with some different philosophies with some of the seniors that were getting private instruction. I told them ‘if you’re not going to listen to what we tell you, you’re not going to get the ball.’ All of a sudden they turned it around.”
San Fernando’s go-to spot to get right? Las Vegas. The annual spring break tournament there has often been a tonic for what ails the Tigers. This year was no different. San Fernando won its first three tournament games, then played Basic High of Henderson, Nevada — currently 30-5 and ranked second in the state — tough before eventually losing 7-1.
“We really clicked, living together and working together there a couple of days,” said Lawrence, 18, a senior. “It got us connected as a team. We don’t like losing.”
When the Tigers got back to California, they also had their confidence and focus. The only losses since were to Birmingham and El Camino Real — “probably our worst game this year,” noted Gomez — in weekend tournament games.
Lawrence, who struggled at the plate early, has gotten his average up to .314 and is second on the team in RBIs. Cabrera, 17, a senior, has also found his hitting stroke and is now at .415. The most crucial rejuvenation belongs to Steven Villagran. The 18-year-old senior may only have a 3-5 record and 4.25 earned run average, but he has also rediscovered how to be an effective and dependable pitcher.
“These last two years have been rough for me,” he said. “My sophomore year had been my best; that’s when I was more calm and composed. In the beginning of this year I was getting out of my zones and into my own head. Getting into my own head was messing it up for me.
“But in the middle of the season I thought back to how I had been successful when I first started. I became more calm, and stayed composed. The game against Basic in Las Vegas, that’s when I got my confidence again.”
Villagran and Matt Dodd will be the main starting pitchers for the Tigers in the playoffs. Both the offense and defense must be a group effort — the Tigers don’t have a bunch of home-run mashers coming through the door.
“We need to play Tiger baseball,” Gomez said. “The way we run, squeezing, bunting, hit-and-run — everything has to be working. We’ll play defense; I don’t think we’ll make a lot of mistakes. And now we’re hitting up-and-down the lineup. But we’re not waiting for three-run home runs. We’re playing for a run an inning.”
That’s their game — pitching, timely hitting, good defense.
The Tigers fully understand that now.
On to the playoffs.