It was a few hours after Birmingham Community Charter High had captured a second consecutive Los Angeles City Section baseball championship, this time in the fledging Open Division that was set up to help devise a state high school playoff system for 2019.
Those few hours gave Coach Matt Mowry a chance to contemplate.
“We battle-test our kids through winter ball and the regular season,” Mowry said. “Get them battle-tested against some of best from Southern Section, so for league and playoffs our kids are prepared for that [kind of] adversity. Our main core of 15 were a team that, if they didn’t jump on you right away then by the second or third time at bat they could get to a pitcher. That was the makeup. We know our offense becomes better as long as the game is still going.”
That was how the script was written for the Patriots’ 4-3 victory against El Camino Real Charter High on June 2 at Dodger Stadium.
The championship, the sixth in school history, gave Birmingham membership into a pretty exclusive club. Only Chatsworth, El Camino Real, Fremont, Granada Hills, Kennedy, Los Angeles CES and Venice have won back-to-back (or in some cases back-to-back-to-back) titles since the City Section started offering championship games dating back to 1943.
That didn’t seem likely early on, however.
Birmingham (26-10), the bracket’s third seed, looked extremely flat in the beginning, managing just two hits in the first four innings against Conquistadors sophomore starter Adam Christopher. By that time ECR (18-15) had built a 3-0 lead, and had driven Patriots starter Armando Yanez from the game.
“Christopher did an amazing job [for El Camino Real] today,” Mowry said. “He battled, especially for a 10th grader on that stage. We had opportunities, but we couldn’t score. (Conquistadors Coach) Josh (Lienhard) gets his kids prepared for those situations and that kid was prepared. He did his job and was that good today.”
If El Camino Real had gone on to win, it would not have been all that surprising. The Conquistadors won both West Valley League meetings between the teams by a combined score of 23-5. But, if you’re Birmingham, that was simply part of the buildup of working through the levels of adversity throughout the season that brought the Patriots to this point.
They were able to come back because their relief pitcher DJ Vergini, a senior, allowed only one hit and no runs in his 3.2 innings of work. That certainly made up for the last time he faced El Camino Real on April 11, when Vergini did not last an inning in a 15-5 loss. He had not appeared in any of Birmingham’s previous postseason games.
“DJ didn’t have a lot of innings in the playoffs,” Mowry said, “but he made them all count.”
“The coaches had gotten me ready,” Vergini said afterward. “We work on having runners on base, all those kind of situations…they really got us prepared.
“I did not pitch a lot this season. But we always have to be ready. And take it pitch by pitch.”
The feeling of a possible comeback began to spread in the Patriots dugout when they finally scored a run in the fifth to puncture Christopher’s air of invincibility. “When you finally get a run — that gives that shot of adrenaline,” Mowry said. “We’ve told the kids we can score in bunches, and they believe.”
Lienhard needed to change pitchers in the bottom of the sixth — Christopher (106 pitches) had reached his limit — and he brought in Jack Whisnant. But Whisnant promptly hit his first two batters, Daniel Velazquez and Victor Villa. And the rest of the inning totally unraveled for ECR.
Joey Klein — who had been playing first base — now went to the mound. The Patriots’ Mark Gallardo laid down a sacrifice bunt, but was safe thanks to an errant throw by Klein to first. Velazquez managed to score, closing the gap to 3-2, and the other runners moving to second and third.
Up came left-handed pinch hitter Andrew Acosta to face the right-handed throwing Klein. Acosta looked bad on an early swing, flailing at an offering that was intended to be a pitchout in case Birmingham might be considering a squeeze play to try and tie the score. If the Birmingham fans were flustered by the senior’s approach, Acosta was not.
“I was definitely a little anxious (on the pitchout),” Acosta said. “But I remembered that earlier in the season I hit them pretty well on inside pitches. So I anticipated they would stay outside.”
Klein did, indeed, stay on the outer half of the plate. Acosta saw a pitch he could hit, but did not try to kill it. Instead he served it into left field for a single to score the tying and go-ahead runs.
“We stress that to our players — ‘take what is given,’” Mowry said. “If it is a quality pitch, take a hit to the opposite field. Acosta bought into that and he comes out the hero… But he bought into that the whole season.”
Meanwhile, Vergini’s catcher Jack Tincher sat with him in the dugout while Birmingham rallied, and kept him focused. And when ECR did get the tying run on base, Vergini said the rest of the infield “settled me down” with two out, so he and Birmingham could finish off the victory and touch off an exuberant celebration.
“Sure I dreamed of this — everybody does,” Acosta said about his game-winning hit. “But feelings don’t equal what actually happens. Once it came true, it’s crazy.”
It’s been a marvelous run for the Patriots, who have won three City titles over the past five years. But Mowry said it’s not just about having a successful program with talented players.
“More than anything, with our guys, what we talk about is being a family,” the coach said. “You have ups and downs, but at the end of the day you love each other.
“There is so much more to this than wins and losses and championships. It’s great to have that opportunity. But for a kid like Yanez to be a two-time City champ and get a high school diploma — he was homeless, had family issues — we used baseball to help get that kid a diploma. Championships are icing at that point.”