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THE TIMES ORANGE COUNTY PLAYERS OF THE YEAR : La Quinta's Jones Is One of a Kind : Baseball: Senior, who tied the county record for victories with 15 this season, has a unique--even eccentric--personality.

June 06, 1995|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTMINSTER — There's an aura surrounding La Quinta senior pitcher Craig Jones, one that makes many shake their heads wondering where this guy came from.

Then they see Jones pitch and wonder just where did this guy come from?

Take the spider incident.

Jones was enamored, almost giddy, when a spider was spotted in the Aztec dugout one day. He couldn't stop talking about it.

Two days later, he came within one out of a perfect game. Afterward, Coach Dave Demarest found his pitcher on his knees looking at, yup, a spider.

"He said, 'Dude, I think that's the same spider from the other day,' " Demarest said. "That's typical of Craig Jones. The on-the-field stuff doesn't seem like a big deal to him."

It was to La Quinta.

Jones, The Times Orange County player of the year, was 15-0 with a 1.53 earned-run average to lead the Aztecs to their second consecutive Division III championship. He tied former La Quinta pitcher Jim Livernois and former Angel and Dodger Andy Messersmith's single-season Orange County record for victories. Livernois was 15-3 last season and Messersmith went 15-3 for Western in 1963.

Jones won all five playoff games, including Saturday's 8-4, eight-inning victory over Santa Margarita. He started, pitched five innings, then came back in the seventh to get the Aztecs out of a two-on, no-out jam to send the game into extra innings.

"I've been in a zone more or less all year," Jones said. "I knew I'd get back in the game. So I stayed loose."

Something that seems to come naturally.

Little that involves baseball seems to affect him. Not even being demoted to the junior varsity last season because of the Aztecs' depth in pitching, which included Livernois, The Times Orange County 1993 player of the year.

He pitched a few innings for the varsity early in the season before being sent down. Jones went 5-1 for the junior varsity, then got a front-row seat to watch the Aztecs win their first section title.

"I guess I could have gotten down and started doubting my skills," Jones said. "But the way I look at it, I'm just playing baseball."

Something he did rather well this season.

Jones started the season as the team's No. 3 pitcher. That quickly changed. He was No. 1 soon after Garden Grove League play began.

His performance against Pacifica cemented his standing, as a pitcher and, shall we say, a unique individual.

Jones was asked when he knew he had a perfect game going. He answered: "At the end of the fourth, I noticed I hadn't been working out of the stretch."

He hit a batter with two outs in the seventh. Jones gave up two singles before getting the last out.

Then he went looking for the spider.

"That thing almost bit me that day in practice," Jones said. "It was like this huge black widow."

Said Demarest: "The Cal Sate Northridge coach called me to ask about him. I told Craig and he said, 'Where's Northridge?' He's just lives minute-to-minute, day-to-day, week-to-week."

His attention span has increased, a result of his improvement as a pitcher and competitor, according to Demarest.

Jones developed an effective curveball this season, which kept hitters from sitting on his 86 m.p.h fastball. He and Demarest had experimented with several types of breaking pitches for more than a year and one finally stuck.

"My curve just went away from a couple years," Jones said. "That could have been my downfall. I rediscovered it this year. It was weird."

He also discovered a little more determination.

Jones went after hitters and seemed more focused this season, Demarest said.

"In the past you could push him around a little bit," Demarest said. "He was kind of complacent. He started complaining about the mound in the semifinals. He's getting to be a perfectionist."

His season reflected it.

Jones pitched four innings in relief against Servite for his first victory. But for important games, he was the pitcher Demarest wanted.

Jones shut out Garden Grove, 7-0, to clinch the league title and was named the co-player of the year. He then started a playoff run that included victories over Lancaster Antelope Valley, Norwalk, Irvine and Pico Rivera El Rancho.

Then came Saturday's title game. Jones left after five innings leading Santa Margarita, 2-1. When he returned in the seventh the score was tied, 4-4, and the Eagles had runners on first and second.

Jones struck out Mike Penney, who led the Eagles with nine home runs, then got Paul Nicotra to loop a fly to center. The lead runner was doubled off second to end the inning.

La Quinta scored four in the top of the eighth, giving Jones his record-tying victory. Not that he was counting.

"Baseball's not about stats," Jones said. "You start worrying about stats, then you stop having fun. That's why I've kept all my awards secret. As soon as you start thinking you're great, someone's going to hammer you."

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