Franklin High baseball Coach Rick Campbell has a theory about his team's jittery start in the City Section 3-A Division championship game at Dodger Stadium last Thursday.
Franklin, frankly, bowed early and was on its knees before the Big Dodger in the sky. But at least that left plenty of time to recover.
"When we walked in before the game, we came in through the gate in the center-field fence," Campbell said. "Most of the kids dropped to their knees, like they were all saying, 'Hey, we're really here.' "
The problem was, they weren't really there, at least not between the ears. Franklin committed three errors in the first four innings and spotted two-time defending champion Bell a pair of unearned runs before rallying for a 3-2 win in eight innings, giving the Panthers a City title in their first appearance in the championship game.
"We've been a comeback team all year," senior shortstop Chad Infranca said. "Because this team has a lot of heart."
For the first few innings, you could have taken Franklin's pulse from across the street.
"I was real nervous," said Infranca, who made a pair of throwing errors in the fourth inning. "It was like it took us awhile to get started."
Or, as Campbell put it, for the awe to thaw.
"I think everybody was totally in awe of the place," Campbell said. "It took four innings before anyone realized we still had a chance to win the thing."
Down, 2-0, Franklin mounted a late rally against Bell starter John Rogers, who entered the sixth with a one-hitter. Sergio Galvez reached base on an error and Infranca followed with a single. Galvez scored after he stole third and the Bell catcher's throw went into left field. Andy Aguilar singled home Infranca with the tying run.
Aguilar, a sophomore first baseman, also played a key role in the game-winning rally. Aguilar's two-out grounder was booted by Bell second baseman Adolfo Estrada, who compounded his mistake by overthrowing first base.
Designated-hitter Hyung Cho, who was the team's regular first baseman until he was replaced by Aguilar, drove in Aguilar with the winning run on a liner into right field.
For Cho, it was redemption: in the seventh, he failed to reach base with Aguilar at second.
"I blew my opportunity there," Cho said. "But I got another chance."
It was a season filled with opportunity and improbability. Last season, Franklin failed to reach the playoffs.
"Last year's team was probably better in talent than this year's," Infranca said. "This team was more like a family. We never argued or nothing."
And the Panthers--who finished 18-4 overall--did nothing wrong most of the season, save for a rather distressing habit of falling behind in the early innings.
This was especially true in the playoffs. In a semifinal-round game last week against Washington, second-seeded Franklin trailed by scores of 2-0 and 7-4 before rallying for an 8-7 win.
Franklin senior right-hander Phil Arreola (13-1), who pitched the final two innings to earn the victory against top-seeded Bell, won the Panthers' last three games.
"He was probably our best player last year," said Infranca, who was an All-City wide receiver on the football team in 1988, when the Panthers won the 3-A title. "This year, he was \o7 definitely \f7 our best player."
Infranca should know. Arreola occasionally mixes in a little psychology with his pitching and fielding. Arreola started the title game at third base, and watched Infranca self-destruct at short.
"He was too fired up," Arreola said of Infranca. "I can understand being like that in football, because you can take it out on the other team. But it doesn't work like that in baseball.
"I had to calm him down. The players and fans from the other team were all over him after (the two throwing errors)."
But a dose of controlled aggression apparently doesn't hurt--seven of Arreola's teammates also played football. And in the fourth quarter, so to speak, Franklin was at its best, with Infranca contributing a key hit.
Sometimes it helps to have guys on your team who aren't afraid of getting a snootful of dirt. Whether it's the end zone of a football field or the Dodger Stadium turf, both are paydirt.
"We walked in and all started rolling around," Arreola said of the team entrance. "We were jumping all over the place. Nobody else was there yet, so we went a little nuts."
Said Infranca: "When I walked in, I kissed the floor, I kissed the grass. I'd wanted to be there since the 10th grade, and we were the first Franklin team to make it. It was a great moment."