WOODLAND HILLS — Before every game he pitches, Kurt Birkins of El Camino Real High kneels down and scratches a figure in the dirt behind the mound.
Using his right index finger, he methodically draws "29" until it stands out among the cleat marks.
The number was worn by Kriston Palomo, a former baseball player at St. Bernard High who died during a game last year after colliding with another player at first base.
Birkins, a senior left-hander, performs the ritual as a tribute to Palomo, whom he befriended when they played together on the West Coast Yankees, a traveling team.
Birkins pitched and Palomo played catcher, but they were more than just a battery in a box score.
"I'm making sure to myself that I never forget him, that I always keep him with me," said Birkins, who tucks a newspaper photo of Palomo inside his cap on game days.
Palomo was playing first base for St. Bernard against Bishop Montgomery on May 4, 1997, when he settled under a pop fly and collided with the batter, whose helmet bill struck Palomo in the throat.
Unable to breathe, Palomo's heart had stopped by the time paramedics arrived. He died later that night.
Birkins was not at the game, but he often thinks of what his friend went through.
"When I see a popup down the first-base line, it enters the back of my mind," Birkins said. "Our coach is always telling us to play every play like it's our last. I doubt Kriston thought that would be his last game."
Last month, Birkins and El Camino Real teammates Woody Cliffords and Johnny Koegel visited Palomo's family a day after the one-year anniversary of Kriston's death.
Birkins' father, Ran, wrote and recorded "Kriston's Song" in a studio and sent it to the Palomo family that same weekend.
"One of the most traumatic experiences that one can possibly imagine is losing a kid," said Ran Birkins, a financial manager who videotapes every El Camino Real game in which Kurt pitches.
"The last thing you expect is a tragedy like that happening during something they love. You'd think the baseball field would be safe, but it wasn't."
In some respects, Kurt Birkins considers the City Section 4-A Division final Thursday night against Chatsworth as just another game, although he'll be the Conquistadores' starting pitcher at Dodger Stadium.
Birkins, who is 10-2 with a 3.24 earned-run average, has plenty of motivation.
Top-seeded Chatsworth dealt Birkins both of his losses, including a 14-4 rout on May 20 that was halted after six innings because of the 10-run mercy rule.
Moreover, Birkins has some not-so-fond memories of Dodger Stadium. Last year, he gave up a grand slam in the 4-A final against Banning, before the Conquistadores rallied for a 13-11 victory.
El Camino Real has won three of the past five 4-A championships. To repeat their title feat, the Conquistadores--and Birkins--will have to be strong.
Chatsworth (29-3) won all three games against El Camino Real (18-9) this season in West Valley League play.
"It's going to be crazy, especially against a league rival like that," Birkins said. "I've got to go out there and pitch with confidence, the way I can. We have a challenge set for us."
Birkins' grandfather, Parker, traveled from Florida to watch Kurt in the playoffs, promising to stay until the end of El Camino Real's season.
Parker, who is retired, has scrambled to extend his hotel stays and rearrange airline flights.
Diana Palomo, Kriston's mother, also plans to be at Dodger Stadium on Thursday night. She was invited to the game by Birkins on Monday.
"There's a handful of [Kriston's] teammates that hold something dear to them every time they play," she said. "Most teenagers would have gone on, but [Birkins] remembers. It makes me feel wonderful."