It’s March. And it’s baseball season in every way but the weather. The rather bountiful California rainy season has lingered and scrambled schedules, disrupted practices and allowed few teams to get into a rhythm.
“What a way to start,” noted Birmingham Community Charter High Coach Matt Mowry. He said it with a smile, of course. Mowry says most things with a smile. He is upbeat and unapologetically positive. He’s also driven, competitive, analytical and not afraid to take chances.
Birmingham has not been unaffected by the early interruptions. But if there is any City Section team that can go with this unnatural flow, it’s the Patriots. The two-time defending champions are well-stocked with experience — 23 of the 25 players are either a senior or a junior — and, having been deeply immersed in a program that has won three championships in the past five years, have a good notion about what it takes to win and how to go about it.
When a program becomes as accomplished as Birmingham baseball, the world “dynasty” begins to take up residency in outsider’s vocabularies. Mention that word to Mowry and he’ll offer another d-word — dumb.
“As coaches we’ve been around this game a long time. We understand and respect the game, and we know there are too many good teams out here to think you can just show up and win — especially in our league and the [nonleague] opponents we schedule,” Mowry said.
“I talk to our guys every year about having three parts to a season — the preseason and tournaments getting us ready for the league season, league play, and the playoffs. Each segment has its own importance to us. And they’re all vitally important to the success of the team. That’s what we’ve been stressing the last few years.”
Birmingham began this week at 5-3, going into the scheduled evening game against St. Bonaventure High of Ventura on Wednesday, March 13, (results were unavailable at press time) and the matchup against Arcadia High on Saturday, March 16. Two of the three losses were to highly ranked Harvard-Westlake in February. On the other hand, in the third meeting between the teams (and the second game of a double-header), the Patriots slapped the Wolverines back with the only loss Harvard-Westlake had sustained in its first 10 games.
In case Birmingham did have any lingering championship “hangover” from last season, Harvard-Westlake was just the tonic that the patient needed.
“I feel that Harvard-Westlake was a good team to play early in the season because they would wake us up, show us how good we are right now, and we’d see what we need to fix — defense or offense,” said Birmingham’s returning All-City shortstop Alex Ballesteros, a senior.
And what did Ballesteros feel needed a tweak?
“Having a little more confidence. We’re pretty good in everything; we had to trust ourselves a little more. Our defense and offense is pretty good.”
An interesting observation, considering many of the Pats have been part of this team for two to four years. But it also lines up with the players accepting Mowry’s mantra of not being caught up in what happened in the past, but about what needs to happen in the present.
“We’ve just gotta work hard and practice hard every week — especially now that we have a target on our back,” Ballesteros said. “In fact we have to work harder. [Winning is] not gonna come to us easily. We’ve got to work for it. … And I’m pretty sure everybody sees it now. I’m pretty sure we’re all trying to be a team.”
One Birmingham player who seemingly has been on his game since he first stepped on campus is pitcher Albert Garcia, a junior. Mowry, with more than a hint of pride, points out that Garcia has gone 19-4 in his Patriots career. That includes two wins this season. That also includes the victory over Harvard-Westlake.
“I just put it all in God’s hands,” said Garcia, who can throw all of his pitches — fastball, curve and changeup — for strikes. “I go out there, take it one game at a time, and give it my best.”
But even he has to admit the victory over the Wolverines was special, right? Garcia won’t bite. “My offense helped me a lot. They put runs up there early, and I got comfortable knowing my defense and offense were backing me up that game.”
The Pats’ schedule won’t let up after this week. There are still nonleague meetings with Burbank High, Rancho Cotate High of Rohnert Park, CA and Crescenta Valley High of La Crescenta. They will play in the prestigious National Classic tournament during the Easter break. And there is always the very competitive West Valley League, with Chatsworth, Cleveland, El Camino Real, Granada Hills and Taft all eager to bring Birmingham down a peg — or several.
So a third consecutive trip to Dodger Stadium isn’t guaranteed.
That’s not simply what the Patriots are telling themselves. It’s what they have to believe.
“We just try to go about our business and try to be as perfect as possible with the little things (i.e. bunting, fielding, timely hitting, running, etc.) It’s the little things that win you championships,” Mowry said, recalling how his team’s talent for bunting, especially with two strikes, led to the 2014 championship that started this current run of success.
“Those were ‘team’ at-bats. That’s what we’re stressing to the guys; to continue with the idea that it’s team at-bats, not our individual stats. Individual stats are great, but it’s more about us stepping up as a team and doing our jobs.”