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Valley / Ventura County Sports | ERIC SONDHEIMER

Youngsters Armed and Dangerous

July 21, 1999|ERIC SONDHEIMER

There's a generational change under way in major league baseball involving the best of the Valley pitchers from the 1980s and the rising young guns from the 1990s.

Bret Saberhagen of the Boston Red Sox, Rod Beck of the Chicago Cubs and Jack McDowell of the Angels are being challenged by the twentysomething crowd and their 90 mph fastballs--Russ Ortiz of the San Francisco Giants, Randy Wolf of the Philadelphia Phillies, Jeff Suppan of the Kansas City Royals, Jeff Weaver of the Detroit Tigers and Jim Parque of the Chicago White Sox.

The newest major leaguers graduated from Valley high schools between 1992-94. Four of the five went to college, were drafted in the first four rounds and reached the majors within three years.

Weaver and Wolf, both 22, are the youngest, followed by Parque, 23, Suppan, 24, and Ortiz, 25.

Among the old guns, two-time American League Cy Young Award winner Saberhagen is 35, McDowell, 33, and Beck, 30. The latter two have been on the disabled list much of this season because of injuries, opening the way for the young guns to take center stage.

Ortiz, a right-hander from Montclair Prep, is having a breakthrough season with an 11-6 record and 3.38 earned-run average for the N.L. West-leading Giants. He had a 1.46 ERA during a recent three-game stretch.

"There are times you sit back and say, 'Wow, I can't believe I'm here,' " Ortiz said.

Ortiz wasn't drafted out of high school and still remembers the disappointment when a scout advised him to attend college because he needed to improve.

"I think that was the toughest thing to hear," Ortiz said. "I kept thinking, 'What are you talking about?' "

Ortiz went to Oklahoma, worked on his curveball under the direction of Vern Ruhle, a former pitcher with the Houston Astros, joined the Giants' organization in 1995 and is a mainstay in the starting rotation.

The learning process for Ortiz is daily. He writes down questions and seeks answers. He knows his fastball is major-league quality and he continues to study the mental aspect of pitching in the big leagues.

"There are so many little things I'm learning--preparing for the game, preparing for a start, setting up hitters, how to act around the clubhouse, how to act around the dugout, how to carry yourself off the field," he said. "All those things you might not think help your game, but everything you do to prepare yourself comes into play."

Ortiz grew up in Van Nuys, was coached in youth baseball by his grandfather and spent countless hours practicing with his older brother, Shad.

"Their idea of a good Friday night is playing Wiffle Ball in the backyard," said Walt Steele, former coach at Montclair Prep. "He's not a carouser. He's got good Christian values and it ties in to why he's been successful."

The five twentysomething pitchers have much to be proud of. Suppan made it to the majors only two years after graduating from Crespi in 1993. He has already played for three teams, which might raise questions about his pitching reputation. But he has been one of the American League's most consistent starters this season for the Royals. He's determined to pitch more than 200 innings to prove he's a durable, dependable right-handed starter.

Wolf, two-time City player of the year from El Camino Real, has created so much excitement in Philadelphia that a group of fans created the "Wolfpack."

"He's having the time of his life," Wolf's mother, Judy, said. "He loves the Phillies."

Weaver pitched sparingly his senior year at Simi Valley, made Fresno State's team as a walk-on, then developed into one of the nation's top college pitchers. The Tigers wasted little time in promoting Weaver from the minors after drafting him last year. His poise, competitiveness and pinpoint control make him a rising star.

Parque was repeatedly judged too small during his days at Crescenta Valley, but as hitters kept going down on strikeouts, the respect for his pitching skills grew strong. He helped UCLA reach the College World Series in 1997 and was pitching in the majors a year later.

"It's always great to see guys from the Valley," Ortiz said.

Ortiz has reached the majors because he embraced the ideal attitude: "Try to work hard, listen to everybody, learn from everybody."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Young Guns vs. Old Marksmen

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Name Age Team W-L ERAHigh School Year Russ Ortiz 25 Giants 11-6 3.38 Montclair Prep Jeff Suppan 24 Royals 5-5 3.80 Crespi Randy Wolf 22 Phillies 5-0 3.33 El Camino Real Jim Parque 23 White Sox 9-6 3.98 Crescenta Valley Jeff Weaver 22 Tigers 6-5 3.84 Simi Valley Bret Saberhagen 35 Red Sox 6-3 2.81 Cleveland Jack McDowell 33 Angels 0-0 0.00 Notre Dame Rod Beck 30 Cubs 2-4 10.54 Grant

Name Russ Ortiz '92 Jeff Suppan '93 Randy Wolf '94 Jim Parque '94 Jeff Weaver '94 Bret Saberhagen '82 Jack McDowell '84 Rod Beck '86

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Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422 or eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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