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BASEBALL: Whitney rallies to keep Artesia winless in battle of future 605 League foes


By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter


Although they are in the ABC Unified School District, the Artesia High and Whitney High baseball programs have not had a regular season history of facing each other. The last time both programs met was on Apr. 11, 2011 and Artesia was victorious at home by a 19-0 count.

The Pioneers and Wildcats will be 605 League members beginning next season but met last Friday in a battle of struggling programs over the past decade or so. Behind a four-run top of the sixth inning, Whitney rallied for a 7-5 victory that put the Wildcats at 3-1 at the time.

“I hope it’s even better next year,” said Whitney assistant coach Kevin Osaki on creating some type of rivalry. “I hope the guys put in the work and get better and keep that competition level there. Hopefully we’re working harder than they are.”

After seeing the Pioneers take the lead with a four-run bottom of the fifth, singles from senior third baseman Sean Chen and sophomore right fielder Rudy Lopez, plus a walk issued to sophomore center fielder Jedi Hernandez loaded the bases. That signaled the end for Artesia freshman starting pitcher Juan Rodriguez and junior Jonathan Juarez proceeded to walk senior left fielder Angel Gomez and sophomore pinch hitter Martin Macaraeg to allow the visiting ‘Cats to tie the game at 5-5. Following a strikeout, sophomore shortstop Jason Shin singled home Hernandez and a groundout from junior pitcher Michael Campos brought in Gomez.

“We have to throw strikes, we can’t walk anybody, and we have to make plays,” said Artesia head coach Michael Gaoghagan. “That’s what kind of killed us today. I thought our starter did a good job; he kept us in the game for most of it. He struggled a little bit in the end, but we had plays that we should have made that we didn’t make.”

“It just comes down to being smart at the plate,” Osaki said. “You have to take what the pitcher gives you. If he’s putting it down the plate, swing the bat. We don’t need to be taking strikes; I don’t think we can afford to take strikes.”

Whitney grabbed a 2-0 lead in the top of the first as Shin and Campos scored unearned runs. The Pioneers, who dropped to 0-7 at the time, got on the board in the bottom of the third when sophomore designated hitter Brandon Azzato reached on an infield single and went to second on an error. Two pitches later, he scored on a single from junior shortstop Brian Soto. Whitney would get the run back in the next inning when Lopez was safe on one of four Artesia errors, went to second on a wild pitch, moved to third on an infield knock from Hernandez and came home on a balk.

But the Pioneers, who had scored seven runs combined in their previous five games, put together their best inning of the season and it began with sophomore center fielder Darrell Miller reaching on a catcher’s interference call with one out. Back to back singles from Azzato and Soto allowed Miller to come home. Later in the inning, senior catcher Oscar Esparza’s single plated Azzato and Soto. He would go to second on the play and eventually scored on a wild pitch.

“The one thing that we’ve been pushing is resiliency because it’s a long game, it’s a game of failure; they’re going to fail and so you have to keep pushing them forward and keep them up because they are going to struggle,” said Artesia assistant Don Olmstead. “We have a freshman on the mound today, a freshman at second and they are going to make mistakes.”

Campos was pitching well for the most part, averaging around 11 pitches an inning through the first four and at one point retired six straight. But after getting the first out in the bottom of the fifth, he threw 16 pitches to the next five batters and was replaced by junior Matt Lacayo, who picked up the save. For Campos, it was his first start of the season.

“He was cruising and initially I thought my whole game plan was maybe we don’t need to run him out there four or five innings,” Osaki said. “Let’s go with three and see how the game goes. But he looked good through four and coming that far, I wanted to give him the ball in the fifth inning. I wanted to see if he could get out some trouble, too. But he pitched a great game.”

Shin went three for four while Chen and Lopez each picked up a pair of hits. Whitney, which had a combined 35 wins from 1999-2015 did not field a team in 2016. But last year, the Wildcats went 10-9, winning at least 10 games for the first time since 1998. The program is hoping that last season was not a fluke and that they can continue to compete and challenge for a postseason berth.

“We’re really kind of driving the fundamentals with these guys and that’s really where it starts when you’re trying to build a team,” Osaki said. “Start with the little things and then we can start to advance places. Really what we’re starting off with is as a coaching staff is the product of coach [Daniel] Reitz. We have a lot of seniors on this team, so, they know what to do.

“For the young guys, we really try to rely on the seniors,” Osaki later added. “This whole team is pretty close as far as what I can see. As I’m going back to these seniors, we want them to teach the younger guys how this program goes; kind of teach them what Whitney baseball is all about.”

Whitney was blasted by St. Anthony High 13-3 last Saturday and fell to Dominguez High 7-3 this past Monday to be even after six games. The Wildcats were scheduled to host South East High on Mar. 22 and will begin play in the Academy League with a home and home series against Calvary Chapel Downey High on Tuesday at home and Thursday on the road.

Azzato and Soto each had a pair of hits for the Pioneers who have had their share of futility, but not as bad as Whitney. Artesia has gone through 10 straight losing seasons and has not made the playoffs since 2007. The program has finished in last place in the Suburban League three straight seasons and has a league mark of 2-33 during that time.

“We wanted to be competitive; we were competitive today,” Gaoghagan said. “But getting close to the [Suburban League] season, we need to make sure that the pitchers are throwing strikes, we’re not walking anybody, and we make the routine play. We’ve been talking about that since day one. They know that and hopefully they’ll continue to get better.”

Artesia finally picked up their first win of the season, edging Pioneer High 7-6 this past Monday before falling to Bellflower High 16-0 the next day to open league action. The Pioneers will visit Bellflower today and Cerritos High on Wednesday. As far a potential rivalry between Artesia and Whitney in the future, that remains to be seen.

“I would assume that this time next year it should be night and day,” Gaoghagan said. “Pretty much we’re losing, after this year, the first baseman and that’s it from the starters today. Everyone else is back. We know we’re getting young; we know we’re going to struggle early. We’re just hoping we can be competitive by league time.”