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At Home On the Mound : Although County Hitters Had a Good Year, Fullerton's Garner Had a Better One

June 04, 1996|MIKE TERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The tagline on the 1996 baseball season should be see it and slam it.

Hitting rained and reigned throughout the county. More than 70 batters posted averages of .400 or better; 11 hit eight or more home runs, and 25 drove in at least 30 runs; new single-season county records were established by Heritage Christian sophomore Paul Caffrey in batting average (.597), RBIs (56) and triples (13).

Cypress' Bobby Brito probably had the best all-around season of any county hitter--.531, 10 home runs and 36 RBIs.

But the Times county player of the year--while posting a tidy .489 batting average--was known for throwing the ball, not hitting it.

Fullerton senior left-hander Michael Garner did not just shine on the pitching mound; he glowed, having the kind of season most pitchers dream about.

His 10-2 record, instrumental in getting Fullerton its first Freeway League title since 1994, is only a prelude. The 6-0, 165-pound Garner sent a collective shudder through opposing lineups with a fastball that moved away from aluminum as if it was allergic to metal, and a knuckle-curve with a bigger arc than St. Louis.

In 13 games, totaling 82 2/3 innings, Garner struck out 125, gave up only 48 hits, walked only 28 and was tapped for only five earned runs (23 runs total). At 0.42, he had an ERA so small even X-ray vision would have trouble seeing it.

During one stretch of the league season, Garner went 50 innings without giving up an earned run.

Garner's reaction to his remarkable season?

"I'm real happy for our team," he said. "We had good year. We may not have had all the talent in the world, but what we had we put to good use."

To say the same of Garner, who has accepted a scholarship to Cal State Fullerton, would be a massive understatement. Week in, week out, Garner was more dependable then sunrise.

Fullerton Coach Marty Berson knows something about a player-of-the-year season. In his seven years as a high school coach (he's also coached at Santa Monica City College), Berson has had three of them, the last being Brian Hayes at Savanna in 1974.

Like Garner, Hayes was a left-hander and threw a knuckle-curve. Hayes won 13 games that year, with an ERA of 1.10.

"I never had a guy with as low an ERA as [Garner]," Berson said. "But the best thing was, he never let the season get to him. He didn't think he had this kind of ability, but he is a real competitor. He never got cocky, just improved all the time."

Berson said one of the things he had to do was convince Garner and the team they were good enough to compete with defending league and Division II champion Sonora. Garner said the team got the message early in the season.

"He showed us he cared about us not only on field but as people," Garner said. "He helped me and others to be more relaxed.

"I see myself as a quiet guy. He brought out my competitiveness. He made us believe we could be champions. A lot of guys' competitiveness came out."

Two of his finest moments came against the Raiders.

Sonora set a county team record for home runs with 43. But the Raiders never went deep in the three meetings against the Indians, and in the two games against Garner--both losses that ultimately proved the difference between first and second in league--they might as well have been swinging swizzle sticks.

In those two games Sonora scored only three runs (two earned) off Garner, and struck out 26 times. They averaged a collective .143 against him.

Said Sonora co-Coach John Link afterward, "Garner is one of those kids who comes along every 10 years that has something special."

Cal State Fullerton associate head baseball coach George Horton added, "there are other pitchers who may be better professional prospects because of their size and velocity, but Mike has been the [county's] most effective pitcher."

Garner said he still has several areas to improve in. "I need to hold runners better. I tried the whole year but never could do it. I need to read the runner better, spot when he's leaning."

Since developing the confidence and belief that he had ability, there's not much more Garner has to learn, according to Berson.

"The easiest way for him to make it further in baseball is as a pitcher," Berson said. "He will get bigger and stronger. He does not need to add pitches, just pick up some velocity on his fastball. He's in excellent hands at Cal State Fullerton."

Garner said he does not expect to go right in and do at Cal State Fullerton what he did in high school. He also said he wants to go to school, even if he is picked in the June major league free-agent draft.

"Next year is a learning year," Garner said. "I have to go learn their system, see what goes on. As a sophomore, I hope to see myself pitching."

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