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BASEBALL AND SOFTBALL PLAYOFF PREVIEW

Veterans and Rookies

Baseball: With good hitting and an improved defense, Corona del Mar joins the ranks of contenders for a section title.

May 18, 1999|MIKE TERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The long wait is over at Corona del Mar.

Until this season, the Sea Kings had not won a league baseball title since 1981, when they also won the Southern Section Division 2-A championship.

Corona del Mar finished the regular season 15-8, 10-5 in the Sea View League. The Sea Kings finished tied with Irvine atop the league and because they won two of three games against the Vaqueros, they will be the league's highest seeded team in the playoffs.

Seeded fourth in Division IV, Corona del Mar enters Friday's first round playoff game against 16-8 Santa Fe Springs St. Paul with its players confident they can do the things--hit, run and catch--to be a legitimate contender for the title.

"We can compete with all the teams in our division," Sea King Coach John Emme said. "It's baseball. You've got to be hot at the right time and you've got to get key hits. But we're going to compete."

Emme doesn't have to look back 18 years to see how far the Corona del Mar program has come.

When he took over last year, Emme inherited a group of promising juniors, led by hard-hitting third baseman Ty Harper, a Times Orange County second-team selection in 1997.

But the program was adrift, having gone through five coaches in 17 years between Tom Trager, who stepped down after the 1981 season, and Emme. From 1990 to 1997 the Sea Kings failed to qualify for the playoffs. Despite earning a wild-card berth last season, a 12-13 overall record, 5-10 league record and fifth-place league finish did little to suggest the potential of the current team.

A couple of changes were in order.

First, rather than distribute his four best hitters--Harper, Eric Wiethorn, Mark Hatfield and Matt Larson--throughout the batting order, Emme put them in the first four spots.

But wouldn't that make the Sea Kings' lineup too top heavy? Not to Emme's thinking.

"People normally expect to be careful of 3-4-5-6 hitters," he said. "So instead, they have to be careful of the 1-2-3-4 hitters. I also wanted them all to get more at-bats, give them more chances to win games."

The four, all seniors, have performed as well as Emme could have imagined.

Harper, whom Emme says "is the best pure high school hitter I have ever seen," is batting .544 with 10 homers and 30 runs batted in. Wiethorn is hitting .405 with 10 homers and 21 RBIs. Hatfield, who said he "struggled early" after moving from catcher to first base, is hitting .389 with four homers and 21 RBIs. Larson is batting .444 with four homers and 29 RBIs.

Their combined RBI total of 101 is 60% of the team's total of 163.

Wiethorn said the on-field chemistry of the four "is just wonderful."

"We've played together since Little League, so we all know each other," he said. "We can tell immediately if one of us is swinging differently."

Hatfield said the grouping seemed "a little weird at first," but he is now sold on the concept.

"You can't pitch around all four of us," he said. "And it's had a ripple effect on the next five guys. Teams don't want us coming up with men on base, so they're trying harder to get them out. As a result, those guys are seeing more fastballs."

Another adjustment was just as important.

Emme and his staff were determined the Sea Kings would play better defense in 1999. Corona del Mar committed 59 errors in 25 games last year. Of the 154 runs given up by the pitching staff, 56 were unearned.

"We got beat up in league because it seemed we were always giving teams five outs an inning," Emme said. "Game in and game out, we gave teams every chance to beat us."

Larson (5-5), Corona del Mar's leading winner after going 3-4 last year, admitted it could be frustrating at times trying to pitch through a hailstorm of miscues.

"You know that errors are a part of baseball," he said. "But I could not remember a game last year when we didn't have an error."

So when fall league competition began, Emme locked up the team's bats. The players spent most of their practice time catching and throwing.

"They asked me when they could hit," Emme said. "I said, 'Once we could catch the ball.' It was no problem convincing them, though. They'd had a frustrating year before, so they were ready to try this."

Harper agreed. "It can be hard to work on something you've been a failure at because you only want to work on what's been successful," he said. "But we knew we had to do something about our defense."

The payoff? Corona del Mar has made only 37 errors in 24 games. The pitching staff has given up 136 runs, but only 35 are unearned.

"We have scored about the same number of runs as last year, so the offense has remained constant," Emme said. "The pitching has been more consistent because we have played better defense."

Harper said the team quickly saw results from the coaches' extra emphasis on defense.

"From the beginning, we were making plays we didn't make last year," he said. "We were staying in games and winning games that before [because of errors] we'd get blown out in."

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