Everyone appeared to be primed for the Franklin High School baseball team's City 3-A semifinal game against Huntington Park last Friday.
The Panther pitchers, outstanding throughout the season, looked sharp, the hitters were loose and the fielding was tight.
But something funny happened on the way to the game at Cal State Los Angeles--the Panthers forgot how to play the brilliant brand of baseball that captured the Northern League title.
Everything went wrong.
It was as if a baseball were a foreign object to the Panther infielders. Pitchers forgot how to throw, hitters' bats were silent.
Sad End to Storybook
The result was hardly what Franklin Coach Richard Campbell imagined on the ride to the diamond.
The final: Huntington Park 15, Franklin 1.
It was a disastrous ending to what otherwise was a storybook year for the Panthers, who fought off early-season eligibility problems and inexperience to become one of the City's more formidable teams.
"When we left the field, there was no doubt who was the better team that day. Huntington Park beat us," said Campbell. "We didn't play very well. It was a comedy of errors and we played poor fundamental baseball."
The Panthers began making mistakes when Campbell submitted the starting lineup.
In a surprise move, Campbell started senior Joey Garcia on the mound instead of All-Northern League sophomore Sammy Genie, one of two young Panther pitchers Campbell relied on throughout the season.
Went With Experience
Campbell went with Garcia, a second-team all-league selection last year, even though the right-hander had seen only limited action this season after being academically ineligible for the first 10 weeks. Garcia pitched in Franklin's 10-9 playoff victory over Huntington Park in 1985.
Campbell soon regretted his decision.
After striking out the leadoff batter in the first inning, Garcia, who finished the year 1-1, loaded the bases with three consecutive walks before giving up two runs on a single.
He yielded a run in the second and another in the third before being relieved by Genie with two outs and the bases loaded. Garcia had struck out five batters but walked four and left trailing 4-1.
"I made a coaching mistake. I went with experience instead of what got us to the playoffs," said Campbell. "I felt it was better to go with a senior and, obviously, it was a mistake. But by the time I had realized it, we had fallen apart."
The Panthers continued to fall apart under the young Genie, who finished with an 8-0 league record and 1.67 earned-run average. Genie, unaccustomed to relief, immediately took up where Garcia left off, walking in three runs before getting out of the inning.
"He wasn't used to relieving," said Campbell of Genie, who pitched well in Franklin's 3-2 victory over Garfield in the opening round of the playoffs. "We never really used him in relief before because he's always been a starter. Sammy had a tough time getting used to the mound and starting with runners on base."
Genie, pounded by the Spartans for three more runs in the fourth, was not the only Franklin pitcher who had trouble with the relieving duties.
Ricky Lopez, another starter, relieved Genie at the start of the fifth. Lopez, an All-Northern League selection with a 7-1 record and 1.50 ERA, was plugged for four runs in his one inning of work.
"At one point, all I felt like doing was putting my head down and saying, 'Let's get this thing over with,' " said Campbell, whose pitchers were pounded by 16 Spartan hits.
The Panther play in the field made matters worse. Franklin made five errors, including three by senior catcher Eliseo Jaime, the unanimous Northern League player of the year.
"It was a year of destiny for them. It was as if we didn't have a shot in the world," Campbell said. "I felt we were up and ready for the game, but then we caught this snowball effect, where everying we tried to do seemed to backfire."
While the Spartans, who scored in every inning, had no problem with the Panthers' pitching, Franklin, with a .322 batting average and seven starters hitting better than .320, was virtually handcuffed.
The Panthers averaged eight runs a game throughout the season but got only five hits against Huntington Park. Leadoff hitter Tavo Salgado scored Franklin's only run in the first inning. Salgado (batting .438) and junior All-Northern League shortstop Ramon Martinez (.442) had two hits apiece.
"We hit the ball, but we hit it right at people. We just didn't hit the way we had the rest of the year," Campbell said.
Hoping for Rally
But Campbell did not give up. "Even when we were down 7-1, I still felt we could come back and win. I just figured their seven runs weren't going to hold up."
But the look on his players' faces told Campbell different.
"That was the first time all year that I had seen my team like that. I don't want to say we quit, but it was evident from the dugout that a lot of the team had given up."
But Campbell said the Panthers, who finished 21-6, had little to frown about.
Although it lost seven players for the first 10 weeks of the season to academic ineligibility, Franklin captured the Northern League with a 14-1 record. Salgado, one of five Franklin all-league selections, missed five weeks while attending Eagle Rock High School because of disciplinary problems.
"I knew I had a decent team at the start of the season, but I didn't know they were going to be that good," Campbell said. "Our bubble just got bigger and bigger and bigger, until it burst."
Campbell believes overconfidence played a major factor in the Huntington Park loss.
"I think the kids looked right by Huntington Park to Venice (which plays the Spartans for the 3-A championship today at Dodger Stadium at 4 p.m.)," Campbell said. "Everything they did was geared toward playing in Dodger Stadium. I think they just got excited and forgot they had a another game to win."