The season is only a few weeks old, but the races in Ventura County high school baseball leagues already are shaping up according to plan.
In every case but one.
Ventura High, a heavy favorite to repeat as Channel League champion, has struggled to a 4-4-1 record.
The Cougars' problem is elementary, actually. It has to do with throwing a small, round ball over a 17-inch-wide pentagon from a distance of 60-feet, 6-inches. In a word: pitching.
Ventura has outhit all but one opponent, but its infielders are getting whiplash from watching line drives sail by, or worse, bored from watching pitch after pitch miss the strike zone.
"The problem is on the mound," Coach Dan Smith said. "The offense and defense are there. We've just been giving up too many walks and letting too many people on base."
The Cougars, who tied Hueneme, 2-2, Tuesday in a game called after nine innings because of darkness, gave up 24 runs last week in losing two of three games.
Ventura's only win, a 12-10 decision over Westlake, came after it blew a 9-3 lead.
"Most teams go through a slump or two," Smith said. "Hopefully we just hit ours early."
Defense and hitting are already areas of strength for the Cougars, who turned eight double plays in their first eight games and have seven players batting .300 or better.
"We have guys who can pitch," Smith said. "We just need to be more consistent."
Ventura's top pitcher of last season, Shane Espitia, is at Ventura College. He was a 10-game winner in 1987.
"We have five or six pitchers," said Steve Askay, a Cougar assistant. "We hoped one would become our ace and the others would pick up the slack.
"We're still looking for the ace."
They also are waiting to see better practice habits from the players.
"They believe they're good and they are," Smith said, "but I don't think they have the same work ethic they did last year. It's almost like they feel if they show up, that's enough to get the job done.
"A lot of the other teams are improved. We can't just talk about how good we think we are. We have to go out and prove it."
In the Tri-Valley League, Fillmore and pitcher Willie Leighton have been as impressive as advertised.
Leighton, a senior left-hander, threw a no-hitter last Friday against Bishop Diego, the first no-hitter thrown by a Fillmore pitcher since 1979. Only one ball was hit hard--a seventh-inning line drive that Fillmore left-fielder Rob Ibarra caught.
"When it first came off the bat, I was concerned because it was well-hit," Fillmore Coach Tom Ecklund said. "But then I saw Robby. He caught it, no problem."
Ecklund's first reaction was understandable since no one before that had hit the ball out of the infield. Leighton, who is 4-0 this season, had 11 strikeouts.
"There were about three infield popups and the rest were ground balls," Ecklund said. "He was in complete command."
Leighton carried a perfect game into the six before he walked a batter on four pitches. He is only 5-10, 170 pounds, but Ecklund thinks he may have a future in baseball.
"What impresses me most is how much he's improved in the past year," Ecklund said. "He had a good season, but he's a much better pitcher now. When you see improvement like that, you have to ask how far he might go."
The major leagues may not be out of the question. After all, that's where the last Fillmore pitcher to toss a no-hitter ended up.
Kevin Gross of the Philadelphia Phillies had been owner of Fillmore's last no-hitter. He blanked Carpinteria in a 1979 playoff game.
On the same day Leighton was shutting down Bishop Diego, Santa Clara was getting its fourth consecutive complete-game pitching performance while establishing itself as the superior team in the Frontier League.
Richard Mendoza threw a three-hitter against defending-league champion Santa Paula. The final score: 22-0.
Santa Clara collected 18 hits, including three home runs, and scored in every inning. Santa Paula contributed to its own demise by committing six errors. Cardinal pitchers chipped in with eight walks and seven wild pitches.
In the Marmonte League, Simi Valley won a showdown with Westlake, 3-2, in the league opener for both teams.
The Pioneers, the preseason favorites to win the league, trailed, 2-0, entering the seventh inning.
But Westlake made a mistake. It pitched--for the first time--to Scott Sharts, who pounded a two-run home run to force extra innings. Sharts had been intentionally walked his three previous at-bats. Simi Valley won in the eighth inning when Andy Hodgins singled home Mike Jenkins.
Sharts went the distance, allowing five hits and striking out 10.
Royal, Simi Valley's cross-town rival, did not play a league game last week, but the Highlanders, who won their first seven games, are off to the best start in school history.