The inaugural 2014 Central Section Baseball Championships at Recreation Park were a huge success on many fronts.
Here’s hoping it happens again, as “The Trek to Rec” officially opens today with the commencement of the Central Section playoffs.
The 2015 Central Section Baseball Championships are May 22-23 at Recreation Park. The title games for Divisions II and V are slated for May 22, and the championship games for Divisions I, III, IV and VI will be played May 23 at the home of the Visalia Rawhide.
Here’s a look at each of the six Central Section playoff brackets:
A Mustang run? Tulare Western’s odds of making a return trip to Recreation Park would be pretty promising if they had the chance to defend their Division II crown. But in Division I, Tulare Western (25-7) is one of the underdogs trying to upset No. 1 Buchanan (26-4), ranked No. 24 in the nation by Baseball America. Still, the Mustangs have the pitching depth to beat any team in this bracket. Tulare Western’s top concern is scoring runs against some of these formidable Division I pitching staffs.
The No. 4 Mustangs enter the playoffs with one of the top team earned run averages (2.12) in the Central Section. Staff ace Kobe Portillo (8-1, 2.56 ERA) is really stingy against opposing hitters (collective .194 batting average). Even in the games Portillo doesn’t start, the Mustangs have quality options in senior Jordan Padilla (5-2, 1.17 ERA), junior Blake Costa (6-2, 2.33 ERA) and sophomore Elijah Parks (5-1, 1.26). Tulare Western has two quality table setters at the top of the lineup in Padilla (.396, 28 runs, 14 stolen bases) and Daniel Martinho (.431, 28 runs).
Tulare Western hosts No. 13 San Joaquin Memorial (15-16) today at 4:30 p.m. The two teams met in last year’s Division II title game with the Mustangs winning 3-2. If Tulare Western wins, it will host a quarterfinal game on Friday.
Is Buchanan unbeatable? There’s no question that the top-seeded Bears are the clear favorite, but they did lose recently to Clovis (5-3 on May 1). Buchanan needed a five-run seventh-inning rally to beat Tulare Western 5-3 during the Coca-Cola Classic. Former Tulare Western student Ross Dodds is one of the top stalwarts in the Buchanan lineup. Dodds, a Fresno State signee, entered May with a batting average north of .340. What separates Buchanan from the rest of the bracket is that it has two pitching studs — St. Mary’s-bound Conner Loeprich and D.J. Martinez — who can shut down any lineup. Buchanan has won four Division I titles over the past 10 seasons.
Outlook: No. 2 Centennial is a quality team, but with the way No. 3 Clovis ended the season, you have to bet on the defending Division I champion Cougars making it back to Recreation Park to take on Buchanan again. As long as they can score a few runs, the Mustangs’ chances of making it to the semifinals are good. But getting past Buchanan may take a minor miracle.
El Diamante, Redwood or Mt. Whitney? This bracket was set up well for one Visalia school to make it to Recreation Park — West Yosemite League champion El Diamante (20-10) is the No. 2 seed and Redwood (25-7) is the No. 3 seed and Mt. Whitney (14-16) lurks as the No. 10 seed. All three teams are on the same side of the bracket. The team that has the best chance of spoiling Visalia’s presence in the title game is No. 6 Hanford West.
• El Diamante: The Miners have one of the area’s deepest lineups, anchored by Adam Munoz (.384 batting average, team-high 26 RBIs, 6 home runs), Blake Hernandez (.375, 19 RBIs, 20 runs), Eean Mexicano (.354, 7 extra-base hits)) and Isaiah Espinoza (.322, 20 RBIs, 22 runs). Staff ace is Nathan Cavagnaro (7-3, 3.03 ERA). Over his last nine appearances, Cavagnaro has a 2.42 ERA. There have been a few slip-ups here and there, but the Miners normally keep opposing teams to four runs or less. When that occurs, El Diamante is 17-1.
• Redwood: Rangers dropped two out of their last three games which cost them at least a share of the WYL crown, and possibly the No. 1 seed for this bracket. When Redwood is playing at the top of its game, it does everything well. The Rangers have all-area-quality players in Rickie Garcia, Jace Chamberlin, Eric Charles, Chase Proctor and Tyler Garster.
• Mt. Whitney: UCLA commit Jordan Prendiz is one of the top players in the section. He’s among section leaders in batting average, runs and stolen bases. The Pioneers earned a spot in the playoffs (they posted a 6-6 WYL record) by winning four of their last six games, including impressive wins over Redwood (7-0) and Hanford (7-4) , the No. 4 seed in this bracket. No shortage of confidence right now for the Pioneers, as they visit No. 7 Fresno (21-9), the North Yosemite League champion, today. Fresno went 7-8 in non-league games. If Mt. Whitney wins, they take on El Diamante on Friday.
Outlook: It really would be shocking if no Visalia team is in the Division II title game — especially if Mt. Whitney wins today. El Diamante and Redwood received first-round byes, so that should allow both teams to set up their pitching staffs for Friday’s quarterfinal round. Who will that Visalia school play in the final? All signs point to top-seeded Edison (22-8), which shared the County/Metro Athletic Conference title with Madera. Edison has an outstanding pitching ace in Andrew Carlin (9-2, 1.36 ERA), but there are questions about the Tiger pitching staff after him.
The Lions’ Roar: Kerman (24-6), the 2014 Central Section Division IV champion, is the No. 1 seed without any argument. Opposing teams have major problems trying to muster run-scoring rallies against Kerman’s pitching staff. Foes averaged less than three runs per game.
Tulare County influence: No. 3 Porterville (19-8) and No. 7 Dinuba (15-12). Porterville, co-champion of the EYL, has the pitching to make it to Recreation Park. Panther senior left-hander Peyton True (6-3, 2.02 ERA) could be the staff ace on most Division II playoff teams, and senior right-hander Andrew Whitten (8-0, 0.74 ERA) is no slouch. Porterville has a pair of formidable hitters in the lineup (Angel Flores and Emilio Navarro), but its mediocre ability to score runs is a possible red flag. Dinuba advanced to last year’s Division III title game, and there are several standouts from that team on this year’s squad. However, scoring runs hasn’t been a team strength. Dinuba is averaging 4.4 runs per game.
Outlook: Kerman is a quality No. 1 seed, but this is a wide-open bracket. It’s not out of the question for Dinuba to catch some fire and make it back to Recreation Park. If Porterville can find some offense, it has an excellent chance of advancing to the section final.. Kerman needs to be careful in the semifinals against No. 4 Kingsburg or No. 5 Garces. Best forecast is Kerman versus Porterville on May 23.
Another crown for the Monarchs? Exeter (22-6) won the 2014 Central Section Division V championship, and it is the favorite to win this season’s Division IV crown. The Monarchs had a noticeable edge in the Maxpreps Division IV rankings over Bakersfield Christian (20-7), the No. 3 seed, and Golden Valley (21-8), the No. 2 seed. Exeter defeated Golden Valley 5-0 in the lower-division title game of the Tulare/Visalia Invitational on April 1 at Recreation Park. However, in that same tournament, Exeter lost 10-3 to Bakersfield Christian.
Exeter’s forte is its pitching staff. The Monarchs feature two ace-quality pitchers in Alex Garcia (8-2, 1.13 ERA, 93 strikeouts) and Tyler Rumbaugh (8-3, 1.67 ERA, 104 strikeouts). The better bats in the lineup are Tyler Sousa (.388 batting average, 16 RBIs, 13 extra-base hits) and Alex Farias (.391 batting average) and Alex Lagrutta (.313, team-high 18 RBIs).
Exeter’s top threat: No. 3 Bakersfield Christian (20-7). The Eagles may not have great pitching depth for a four-day tournament, but they have plenty to make themselves a legitimate threat for the section title. Bakersfield Christian ended the regular season on an eight-game winning streak.
Outlook: Conventional wisdom is that we will see either a rematch of this year’s Visalia/Tulare Invitational lower-division title game (Exeter vs. Golden Valley) or last year’s Visalia/Tulare Invitational lower-division title game (Exeter vs. Bakersfield Christian) in the final. What you have to like about Exeter’s postseason chances is its ability to win close games. In their last 10 games that were decided by two runs or less, the Monarchs were 10-0.
Title for the Titans?: Cesar Chavez’s rise as a lower-division power has been one of the top “under-the-radar” story lines in the section over the last two years. The former lower-tier EYL program shared the South Sequoia League championship with Bakersfield Christian. Cesar Chavez (21-4) lost 4-2 to Arvin last week. Arvin is the No. 8 seed in this bracket.
Tulare County influence: The two Tulare County teams in this field believe they have a realistic shot of advancing to Recreation Park, despite not being top-3 seeds.
• No. 4 Woodlake (20-4): The Tigers were seeded right behind Sierra Pacific — Woodlake and Sierra Pacific shared the East Sequoia League title. Woodlake’s primary strength is its pitching. The Tigers have three quality starting pitchers in seniors Spencer Jones (8-3, 1.87) and Josh Bergdoll (5-0, 2.19), and sophomore Carlos Pena (4-0, 2.48). The big three bats in the Tiger lineup belong to seniors Zach Fesperman (.450 batting average, 19 RBIs), Gunnar Little (.435, 25 RBIs, 14 extra-base hits) and Eddie Pena (.435, 19 RBIs, 13 extra-base hits).
• No. 7 Central Valley Christian (10-17): CVC’s record was bruised by playing a schedule filled with Division III and IV teams. CVC was ranked sixth amongst Division V teams by Maxpreps. Dalton Daily, a sophomore, leads the team in batting average (.436), RBIs (22) and extra-base hits (12). Top three pitchers are senior Caleb Flores (3-2, 2.81 ERA), and sophomores Trenton Vanderveen (3-5, 3.35) and Jack Reitsma (1-5, 3.73). CVC hosts Fresno Christian today. If the Cavaliers win, they will be home Friday against the winner of the No. 2 Rosamond/No. 15 Washington Union game. Section rules prohibit Rosamond from hosting a playoff game against a non-High Desert League team until 2017.
Outlook: No. 2 Rosamond is arguably the most talented team in this bracket. But because of Central Section rules, the Roadrunners are looking at three long bus trips to make it to Recreation Park. Don’t like the odds of Rosamond pulling off three road wins to make it to the final. No. 3 Sierra Pacific (15-7) has a dominant pitcher in senior Jacob Evangelo (6-2, 0.57 ERA, 124 strikeouts in 61 1/3 innings), and that should pay dividends in the postseason. Wouldn’t be surprised if it’s an all-East Sequoia League final (Woodlake vs. Sierra Pacific) in the title game.
Farmersville is the favorite: Farmersville (15-7) earned the No. 1 seed after capturing the East Sierra League title with a 10-2 record, a mark that included a 7-0 win over Orosi in the regular-season finale. Aztecs have been a hitting machine in recent weeks. Over their last seven games, the Aztecs have scored 93 runs. Farmersville was the 2014 Central Section Division VI runner-up.
Tulare County impact: Good chance of an all-Tulare County final in this one with Farmersville being joined in the nine-team bracket by No. 3 Orosi (15-8) and No. 4 Lindsay (12-12). Orosi finished just a game behind Farmersville in the East Sierra League. Orosi won eight out of its last 11 games, and are averaging 8.7 runs per game. Lindsay senior Israel Uribe is one of the area’s better pitching/hitting standouts. He’s 6-2 on the mound with a 1.71 ERA, and he’s .312 with 12 RBIs.