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Two Strong Arms And Plenty Of Resolve PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mike Terry, Contributing Writer   
Thursday, 26 April 2012 02:35

Right-handers Steven Rodriguez And Daniel Rivas Have Birmingham Competing In The West Valley Race

MIKE TERRY/SFVS

Arming The Patriots -- Birmingham senior pitchers Daniel Rivas (left) and Steven Rodriguez (middle), along with catcher Edgar Ruvalcaba, have the Pats leading the West Valley League.

Valley baseball teams have enjoyed an unparalleled run in Los City Section baseball, winning 19 consecutive Division I or 4A championships, and 38 of the last 39 titles since 1973.

But Birmingham is one of the area teams that rarely gets invited to the party.

Oh sure, the Patriots won City championships in 1964, 1966 and 1969. They were Invitational runners-up as recently as 2004 and 2006 (losing both times to Granada Hills). But the last league championship of any kind came in 1994, when Birmingham won the Valley Pac-8 title.

Too often baseball has felt more like an afterthought at Birmingham, no more so in 2009 when the Patriots staggered through a 2-24 season including 0-15 in league.

Things have been slowly and quietly turning around. In 2010, the Patriots were 14-14 overall. Last year they were 17- 15, and reached the semifinals of the Division I playoffs.

This year could be even better.

Birmingham began the week 14-8 overall, and the surprise early leader of the West Valley League at 4-0. The Pats are succeeding with timely hitting, defense, and strong pitching, in particular senior right-handers Steven Rodriguez and Daniel Rivas.

Rodriguez is 4-0, with one save. His earned run average is 3.00, but seven of the 17 earned runs he has given up in 32.2 innings came in an 8-7 victory against Harbor City Narbonne on March 24.

Rodriguez more often has looked like the pitcher that stifled Granada Hills on five hits in a 3-1 victory on April 21. Even though he only had one 1-2-3 inning against the Highlanders, Rodriguez threw a complete game, striking out 12.

He's a grinder, Rodriguez said, because he can be a slow starter. "It often takes me an inning to get my best stuff working, get my mindset working, get locked in," he said.

Rodriguez said even though he has pitched in parts of three previous seasons for Birmingham, this season he needed to shoulder a heavier load with the graduation of last year's starters Kevin Torres and Pedro Santoyo.

"This off-season I took into account I could be one of the guys the team's gonna rely on a lot," Rodriguez said. "I had taken it serious all four years but [this year], being a senior and a captain, it clicked in you have to help the team progress throughout the season and make it more a family."

Even though Rodriguez throws harder – "his fastball can either be heavy or slice right through you," according to Birmingham catcher Edgar Ruvalcaba – Rivas may have the more electric "stuff."

He has three pitches – fastball, curve and changeup – and will throw them at any time in the count. He has more strikeouts (33) than hits given up (29) in his 32 innings. And he's only walked seven, so hitters have to earn their way on base.

Ruvalcaba said Rivas' curve can be devastating. "It runs away, more of a '9-3' than '12- 6,'" he said. "But that changeup? He can [also] throw it 2-2, 3-2 in the count, and it's going to be there."

Rivas, who was primarily an outfielder in 2011, pushed himself to become a lead pitcher for Birmingham during the summer and fall seasons. He said he hasn't stopped pushing himself even though he met his goal.

"I practice every day as hard as I can," Rivas said. "I've developed three pitches … [and] I think my changeup is my best one; it's working very well."

Both pitchers – along with another senior, Jesus Pizano, who is 3-0 – have given Coach Matt Mowry a set of arms to take on perennial league and City contenders Chatsworth, and El Camino Real, as well as battle Cleveland, Granada Hills and Taft for one of the three guaranteed Division I playoff berths the league will receive after the regular season ends on May 11.

The Pats have already swept Cleveland and Granada Hills. They take on Chatsworth this week (starting Wednesday, April 25), and face El Camino Real next week before wrapping up the league season against Taft.

Mowry, who's been Birmingham's coach since 2007, is not put off by the close-to-the-vest methods employed by the Patriots to get wins.

"(The players) know that if we're gonna win, we've gotta pitch and we have to play defense, and get our timely hitting when we can," Mowry said. "That's kind of where the high school game has gone in general, anyways. With the bats being the way they are, it's become more a pitching-and-defensive game."

But another advantage is the Patriot's home park. The dimensions – 330-feet down the left and right field lines, 390-feet to straightaway center – would challenge some college squads, let alone high schoolers. And there is also plenty of foul ball space for infielders and catchers to get cheap outs.

"It's a nice luxury to have as far as the pitching end," Mowry said about the facility. "On the offensive end, it's not the greatest; we have four home runs, which may be down from years past, but I still think we're a pretty good hitting team. And we're just starting to click offensively now, which should help us out."

More conducive to Birmingham's continued success, however, is Rivas and Rodriguez staying in control of the strike zone, and the other Patriots getting enough hits and making enough plays behind them.

Mowry is optimistic the Pats can make the West Valley race a three-team affair, and not the often shared property of Chatsworth and El Camino Real.

"I think this team is a little bit more fundamentally sound," Mowry said. "We're not making the kind of errors and mistakes we made last year. And our pitching is really helping us out this year. That's a big thing. Our offensive numbers might not quite be the same, but our pitching numbers are tremendously improved."

It's easy to know why the pitching is better, Rodriguez said.

"The trust is there. I can trust these guys with anything," he said. "If we mess up, make mistakes, we just say 'we'll get this one now.' And if I get a ground ball, they get me out of the inning. I have no worries about what's behind me."

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