They don’t make the Moore League like they used to.
In the five seasons since Chase De Jong and Shane Watson pitched Wilson and Lakewood into the CIF Southern Section Division 1 semifinals at Blair Field, the Moore League has had four different champions. The league hasn’t seen parity like this since the late 1990s — and it hasn’t translated into postseason success. Wilson, Lakewood, Poly and Millikan are 6-20 in the playoffs over that span and they’ve been outscored 109-60.
“It’s not the same league we had 10 years ago, not even close,” Wilson's 16-year coach Andy Hall said. “Limitations to transferring and the changing demographics don’t help. Now if you have one or two and half (elite) guys on your team, you’re ecstatic.”
However, the new CIF-SS playoff equity model has given the league new life like it did football in the fall. Defending champion Millikan is still in Division 1 while Wilson and Lakewood move down to Division 2 and Poly is in Division 3. Even the bottom half of the league has new postseason dreams with Jordan in Division 5, Cabrillo in Division 6 and Compton in Division 7.
“It’s wide open,” Millikan coach Ron Keester said of the league. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
After winning their second league title in the last three years, the defending champion Rams (5-5) aren’t in a rebuilding mode after losing a decorated senior class, but they’re certainly building. Millikan has nine seniors on the roster, but seven of them don’t have much varsity experience.
“We’re young/old in that way,” Keester said. “That’s shown in our lack of timely hitting. It gets magnified when you’re so young because you don’t have that many opportunities.”
Seniors Diego Alarcon and Andrew Talley are the experienced senior leaders on offense and up the middle. Alarcon has moved over to shortstop after the graduation of Moore League Player of the Year Spencer Steer and Tally has taken over at second base. Alarcon, a four-year starter, has already scored seven runs and hit three doubles in nine games. Talley has a team-high eight RBIs.
“(Alarcon) has done everything we’ve asked of him, and he’s not just playing baseball,” Keester said. “He’s our best player by far and he’s still making sure he’s teaching the younger kids how to play the Millikan way.”
Millikan has two strong starting arms in senior Max Pappas and junior Kelly Hawkshaw. They both throw in the mid-80s with strong change-ups and curve balls. The two have combined for 29 strikeouts and only eight walks this season, and Keester said that efficiency is going to be key in league play.
“When you’re playing these games at Blair Field it’s going to be a 2-1 or 3-2 game, so you have to limit the opponents free opportunities,” he said. “We’re close. This season has been a different approach and it’s a lot more teaching. Once this group gets caught up mentally, we’re going to be okay.”
The Rams haven’t won consecutive league titles since they won four in a row from 1990 through ’93.
It looks like the Bruins (5-5) have the pitching to end their longest league championship drought since the late-’90s. Wilson has only won league once in the last five seasons and 2005 was their last outright title.
Senior pitcher Zach Pettway, who missed almost all of last season with injury after a breakout sophomore season, is verbally committed to attend UCLA. Senior Cole Fleming, who had a 1.93 ERA in 13 appearances last season, is verbally committed to Chapman. Wilson has a team ERA of 1.59 with 49 strikeouts in 44 innings pitched. Pettway has 30 strikeouts and one walk in 17 innings.
“I think our arms could be enough to get it done,” Hall said. “We’ve just got to be careful with the new CIF-SS rules.”
According to new CIF-SS bylaws, pitchers can only record 30 outs and have three appearance in a calendar week that starts Monday. Also, pitchers can’t make more than 110 pitches in any start. If they don’t have any days rest, they’re limited to 30 pitches, and that varies up until three days rest allows for 76-110 pitches. Hall said that will play into the favor of teams with deep staffs.
“You have to be smart and give them rest,” Hall said. “We’ve used (Pettway) to come in and close games. Now, it’s better if your guys are throwing their bullpen on the mound in a game.”
Offensively, Wilson has a good group of contact hitters who could get hot at any time. Catcher Max Williford hit .310 last season and already has six hits in six games this year. Senior second baseman Jerry Granillo has found a spot atop the order, and Crixtian Taveras has filled in nicely at shortstop for junior Greg Reasbeck, who has been struggling with a leg injury.
“Looking at the recent results for the league, I think if one team gets hot offensively it could be theirs for the taking,” Hall said.
Each Lakewood baseball team in the Spud O’Neil era can be characterized as a gritty, hard-nosed ball club. This season is no exception according to O’Neil, as the Lancers enter 2017 in CIF-SS Division 2 with a good chance to make a deep playoff run.
“We had lost our last two first round playoff games, so I’m not surprised we’re in Division 2,” O’Neil said. “We’re struggling a bit to start the season, but we’ll be ready for Moore League. It’s our fourth gear.”
O’Neil has spent the first half of the season as Lakewood’s bench coach due to a passing in the family, while long-time assistant coach John Yakel has filled in for him at practices. Now O’Neil is back on the field for the Lancers and will return to his duties as manager and third base coach.
“(O’Neil) provides a sense of stability for us,” Yakel said. “He never panics and his experience brings a calmness to the dugout.”
Lakewood (3-7) is led by senior left-handed pitcher Brian Sandoval, who has great movement on the fastball to go along with a bulldog-like approach on the mound. O’Neil says he’ll be eating up a lot of innings for the Lancers, especially in big games.
The Lancers return both middle infielders in senior All-Moore League shortstop David Rivera and senior second baseman Buck Anderson. Anderson is hitting around .500 to start the season and he and junior outfielder Carter White are the table-setters for the middle of the Lakewood lineup.
Junior left-hander Jake Habelitz provides depth to the Lakewood pitching staff and adds another big bat in the heart of the order at first base. Senior Chris Gann returns to the Lancer bullpen and will be called upon to shut the door in close game situations.
“The goal is always to win the league,” Yakel said. “We really felt like we could do that and get deep into the playoffs after our first weekend.”
The Lancers have a key 1-0 win over Los Alamitos this season and begin Moore League play against Jordan on Friday.
First year Long Beach Poly coach Brent Lavoie walked into something of an awkward situation this year. After the messy firing of longtime coach Toby Hess resulted in student walkouts and large protests at LBUSD board meetings, it became part of Lavoie’s job as the new Jackrabbits coach to serve as a healer of sorts.
So far, so good for Lavoie, whose Poly team comes into league play with a 4-6 overall record.
“Toby’s been nothing but generous and helpful about how to get inside the lens of seeing things from a Poly perspective,” said Lavoie, who is a teacher at Millikan but hoping to transfer to Poly sooner rather than later. “He’s helped me out quite a bit.”
Lavoie has kept the team’s booster club going and already has added some pitching machines to Poly’s facility, and he’s got an experienced Jackrabbit team excited about its prospects.
“They’ve got big expectations, and they know that with that has to come big effort,” Lavoie said.
Fortunately the cupboard is full at Poly, where the first-year coach has the benefit of 14 seniors on his 22-man roster. Captains Aj Renteria and Gaven Palagonia are back, and junior E.J. Andrews is poised to have a breakout year that could make him a household name in Long Beach.
Poly has a pair of live arms in Micah Wallette and Patrick Faynor; utility man Jake Creamer can do it all for Poly, from the mound of the field. Poly has a pair of talented infielders in football star Mike Mauai and sophomore Chris Murphy, and Lavoie also praised outfielder Nolan Brown for giving his team a spark.
Poly has been steady offensively this year in a way not often seen in the Moore League, averaging six runs a game and hanging six runs on Downey and seven on Los Alamitos.
The Jackrabbits’ record isn’t stellar, but it may also be a liar — four of Poly’s six losses have come by just one run, and the team has already played three extra inning games.
The Panthers have dealt with a lot of adversity over the last few years and interim head coach Bryan Whitfield said he is hoping to return stability to the program. Jordan practices at Houghton Park down the street from campus, making it difficult on the players, but Whitfield says they’re making the most of it.
“I’m stepping in trying to change the culture, but it’s a grind because of these facilities,” he said. “The field is a problem, but these kids still bring energy to practice every day.”
Whitfield says the Panthers lack depth in the rotation, but their two aces Adrian Lopez and Johnny Torres will be able to make up for it. They’ll be seeing a lot of innings in the Moore League this season.
Junior second baseman Rudy Medrano is Jordan’s leadoff hitter this season, while first baseman Carlos Rojas has been swinging it well in the middle of the order. Rojas is the leader in the lineup.
The Panthers are competing in Division 5 of the CIF-SS under the new competitive equity format and Whitfield is expecting to make a playoff push. The Panthers (1-5) have an impressive 37-1 win over Firebaugh earlier in the year.
“I know these kids will compete and play hard,” he said. “Making the playoffs is our expectation and hopefully we catch a few breaks along the way."
Fourth-year coach Johnny Alvarez has a small squad of only 14 players. His Jaguars (2-6) have made plenty of noise with their bats, but the pitching and defense has yet to catch up.
“I’ve had to turn almost everyone into a pitcher,” Alvarez said. “It’s not trial and error. We’ve been working on this since the summer, even though our ERA doesn’t show it.”
Cabrillo is hitting .310 as a team with 12 extra base hits and 16 stolen bases. However, the Jaguars ERA is 11.50 and they’ve committed 19 errors for a .872 fielding percentage.
“If we can get better defensively, I think that will really help the pitching,” Alvarez said.
Four-year starter Kenny Fisher is the team leader and he’s hitting .400 with a handful of RBIs. Alvarez said he is also excited about freshmen Dylan Gambino and Paulino Gonzalez. They both play outfield and Alvarez said he just needs to get their baseball IQ up for their natural abilities to take over.
The Tarbabes (2-3) also have put up some impressive offensive numbers with good senior leaders and a strong sophomore class. The team is hitting above .300 and swept a double header with Dominguez last week. Senior Leonardo Campos already has seven hits in 14 at bats and sophomore Fransisco Moncada leads the underclassman with a .588 slugging percentage.
The Saints were just 12-13 overall last year but started a perfect 6-0 in 2017, and are the only ranked team in the city at No. 9 in the CIF Southern Section’s Division 6 pool.
St. Anthony enters Santa Fe League play this week as the only member of the league with a winning record, and plenty of reason to feel optimistic. Sophomore Andrew Donini is hitting .526 with seven RBIs and eight runs in just six games, while senior Nick Holguin is hitting .455 with nine RBIs and 10 runs. The Saints have won several blowout games but also two extra innings affairs, and are averaging almost 13 runs a game, an astronomical number by Long Beach standards.
St. Anthony is also remaining aggressive under head coach Kris Jondle, with an average of two stolen bases per game. Freshman JB Quamma has made three appearances in six games and already owns two wins, along with a 0.95 ERA. Senior Wyatt Duran has pitched 11 innings, most on the team, but has yielded 10 earned runs.
St. Anthony has already proven it could play with the big schools, having beaten Cabrillo (by 11 runs), Artesia, and Lynwood this year — but it’s a league title they’re after. Under the league realignment, defending champions Salesian no longer stands in the Saints’ way. Still, St. Anthony won’t know if they’re for real until they take down league foes like St. Bernard and St. Genevieve — they face both teams in the next week.