This is the time of year when the Palma High baseball team is usually battling it out for a league title.
Last year Palma had to win its last eight straight to win the MBL Gabilan Division crown by one game.
In 2012 Palma was chasing Hollister for the TCAL title, and with the help of a nine-game win streak, pulled into a first-place tie with the Balers with one game to go. Salinas beat Palma on the last game of the season, which allowed Hollister to sneak in ahead of Palma.
In 2011 the Chieftains rode a five-game win streak into first place during the final week of the season, but were beaten by Hollister and Salinas in their last two games and deadlocked in a tie for second with the Cowboys. Both teams finished a game behind champion Hollister.
Palma has reached the Central Coast Section playoffs 10 straight years, and usually they’ve reached it with ease. The Chieftains have won 20 or more games seven times in the last 10 years under four different coaches.
The Chieftains are taking this season down to the wire, too, but the suspense isn’t building for a league title. Far from it. This time Palma is just hoping for at least a fifth-place finish, which it needs to gain an automatic spot into the three-division, 48-school, CCS playoffs.
The top five MBL Gabilan Division teams earn CCS playoff spots. Only the first-place team from the MBL Pacific Division advances — any others will be wild-card entrants, according to the way the equity league is structured.
In the meantime, Palma (4-9), Gilroy (3-9) and Monte Vista Christian (4-8) will slug and pitch it out for the final automatic berth.
Though the remaining five league games for Palma leave little margin for error, the Chieftains playoff fate may be determined this week. Palma (4-9) hosts Gilroy (3-8) today and goes to Monte Vista Christian (4-8) on Thursday.
Adding to the importance of today’s game is the fact that the Chieftains and Gilroy split their first two meetings. Head-to-head meetings are the determining factor for tie-breaking procedures. Palma already holds a 2-0 advantage over MVC.
Palma is also in danger of failing to win 10 or more games overall for the first time since 2002 when it went 8-14 overall. It’s the only time in the last 22 years the Chieftains have been unable to win 10 or more games. Palma is 6-14 this season, but six of those losses have been by three runs or less.
But even Palma, one of those private schools that seems to have an endless supply of talent, has to go through a rebuilding year eventually. And this is one of them.
“We only had one pitcher coming back, and that was Ryan Scarr,” Palma coach Phil Giammanco said. “And he only had four to eight innings last year.”
Scarr is also the only senior pitcher on the roster.
“We have two sophomores and six or seven juniors who pitch,” Giammanco said. “It’s been fun watching them develop. This is new for everybody. But we’re learning.”
Whereas before Palma’s strong starting rotation often finished what it started, this year it’s all about finding out who can do what and when.
“This year we’re coaching out of the bullpen,” Giammanco said. “We’re doing lefty-righty matchups, finding a set-up guy and a closer. Those are things we’ve never had to do before. It’s all part of the maturation process.”
The lineup has been a work in progress as well.
“We have only two returning position players,” Giammanco noted.
The graduation rate also left Palma exposed up the middle. The new position players include the catcher, most of the pitchers, shortstop, second base and center field. Left and right fielders are also new to the starting lineup.
Alex Ellison and Anthony Payan are the returners. Ellison is tied for third in the league in RBIs with 12. Payan had a sensational sophomore and junior season — he was chosen to The Californian’s All-County team last year — but has had a tough time getting it going this year.
Through it all you’d never guess by the reactions of many of the players Palma is closer to the bottom of the standings than the top.
“Honestly, with this group it doesn’t matter what we do, these guys come back the next day ready to play,” Giammanco said. “That’s what has made this season so enjoyable.”
Following games against Gilroy and MVC the Chieftains finish with the league-leaders — Hollister, Monterey and Salinas. They’re 0-6 against those three teams.
But when you’ve won as often as Palma, the slumps don’t last long.
“Every year there’s one of those teams that doesn’t have a great record but you don’t want to meet them in the playoffs,” Giammanco said. “This year we could be that team.”
Baseball Top 10
1. Pacific Grove (16-2): Can you say CCS Open Division? Just asking.
2. Hollister (14-6): Non-league and tournament losses can sometimes be misleading.
3. Monterey (14-7): Just to set the record straight Toreadore coach Michael Groves’ career record is 674-303. He’ll hit the 1,000 career game mark next season.
4. Salinas (11-11): Cowboys will end a 16-game break between games Friday at home against Hollister.
5. Christopher (11-8): The difference between Christopher, Salinas and Monterey is as close at the league standings indicate.
6. MVC (8-12): Not a great record, but has quality wins against Monterey, Salinas, Christopher and Aptos.
7. Watsonville (15-4): In the tight MBL Pacific Division the schedule favors the Wilcatz.
8. North Salinas (9-8): Going to get tested by having to play eight games in the final 16 days of the season.
9. Carmel (12-7): Padres typically crank it up a notch this time of the season.
10. Palma (6-14): Too many narrow losses in a tough league to keep this team out of the Top 10.