When you’ve enjoyed the consistent level of success San Fernando High has had on the baseball field during a recent 10-year stretch — which included eight Mission Valley League or co-league championships and two City Section Division I titles, from 2010 to 2019 — having two losing seasons can feel like 20.
But the 2020 and 2021 overall seasons for the Tigers were not winning ones, and they found themselves no longer in the conversation as one of the City Section’s elite prep programs in the San Fernando Valley. Birmingham is the current diamond standard that everyone else is measured against. But storied traditions can be found at Chatsworth, Cleveland, El Camino Real, Kennedy, Poly, Sylmar, and Verdugo Hills, to name a few.
Coaching changes and, of course, the pandemic interruptions played a significant part in the Tigers recent decline. What the San Fernando faithful do not want to see is a team in free fall off of a cliff.
Ray Figueroa knew exactly what he was getting into when he accepted the varsity baseball coaching job. A 2001 graduate of San Fernando High, Figueroa played baseball here and was the junior varsity coach when San Fernando won the 2013 City Division I championship, then the City’s highest tier. (The Open Division was created in 2018.) And even though the Tigers have not won a City title since 2013, they have always been a threat to do so until 2020 — when there were no playoffs in that abbreviated season — and last year.
Figueroa, who is assisted by his brother Aaron, walks into the 2022 season with a somewhat unproven 20-player roster and his eyes wide open. The expectations of the fanbase, as usual, are high.
“The goal is to get back to that level, back in the conversation where we are in the mix for a City title in the upper division playoffs,” Figueroa said. “I tell our kids every day our goal is to be in the Open Division playoffs. To get there, you’ve got to [at least] get through four good teams to get to the top. I know last year, they got into the Division I bracket, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But our goal is the Open Division.”
A 6-0 loss to Westlake High on March 4 dropped the Tigers overall record to 3-2. (The results of Wednesday’s game against Taft were not available at press time.) In both losses this season the Tigers were shut out. And, Figueroa said, both losses have revealed a weakness so far: timely hitting.
“We’ve been pitching well; it’s been keeping us in games,” he said. “Defensively we’ve been playing well. Our hitting’s had its moments where we show what we’re capable of. Then we have times where we can’t get anything going.
“We have to take it one game at a time. We can’t overlook any of our opponents. We don’t want to peak in the beginning, to come out strong and then fizzle at the end. [But] we’ve got to get our bats going in the direction that we want. Once we do, we’ll be fine.”
He said he is satisfied that the players “have bought in” to his style of play, which is not depending on home runs but moving runners along, running the bases smartly, strong pitching and assured defense.
“I am a big fan of ‘small ball,’” the coach said. “That does require a level of intelligence and execution. It requires repetitive practice, continuing to work on baserunning, moving on contact, and knowing the situation you’re in. It’s high baseball IQ and repetitive practice.”
The team is not senior driven. But it has senior leaders like catcher Enrique Escobedo, who are motivated by the tradition of San Fernando baseball and are willing to instill that pride and work ethic in the younger varsity players.
Escobedo, 17, feels that — after the disappointment of the past two seasons — this group of Tigers may be ready to bounce back.
“Right now it’s getting to the point where we’re getting stable,” Escobedo said. “Before it was a little rocky; there were changes everywhere, and COVID messed everything up.
“We got through it…but we’re still not completely back. We’re [still] figuring things out — our chemistry, and playing together as a team. I feel we can make it to the championship. We just need to work together, talk, stop messing around during practice and be ‘us.’”
The Tigers have a couple of potential outstanding hurlers in juniors Manny Najar and Ben Curiel. And Figueroa said there are other players who can “eat up innings” on the mound if the Tigers are forced to play several games in a row.
Curiel, 16, said getting in a full season in 2021 has given him the confidence he can be a force on the mound.
“I got experience I needed,” he said. “There were some big games against Kennedy and Sylmar — I got a feel for what it’s like. So I do have more confidence going into this year.”
But until the hitting becomes consistent, the pitching will have to carry the team while the Tigers find their footing in the early third of the season.
“It’s important for [the pitchers] to have our ‘A’ games to win games,” Curiel said. “But I feel we can be good if we do start hitting the ball.”