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Birkins, Pierce Left-Hander, Shows Up on Radar Screens


WOODLAND HILLS — It was only an intrasquad scrimmage, but there they were this week at Pierce College, about 20 major league scouts watching and jotting notes on Kurt Birkins.

"It's exciting to see all those guys out here," Birkins said. "Hopefully, it'll carry over into the season."

Birkins can pretty much count on that. A left-hander with a 90-mph fastball and a biting curve, he has been tracked by scouts since joining the Brahmas in the fall.

Even though he was an All-City selection at El Camino Real High, scouts did not project him developing a powerful fastball because of his slender build.

Birkins, 6 feet 2 and 175 pounds, is surprised and almost amused by the turn his career has taken.

He accepted a scholarship to UCLA, pitched 20 innings of relief as a freshman in 1999, and sat out last season but did not redshirt. He spent the season as an assistant at El Camino Real.

Then, in a bizarre twist, the Baltimore Orioles selected Birkins in the 33rd round of the amateur draft in June as an outfielder on the recommendation of scout Gil Kubski.

"I had been on [Kubski's] scout teams while in high school and I was always an outfielder," Birkins said. "I was always an outfielder who pitched, not a pitcher who played outfield."

Birkins passed on Baltimore's offer and chose to play at Pierce, instead of returning to UCLA, to be eligible for the next draft. As a draft-and-follow player, Baltimore owns the rights to Birkins until a few days before the draft. By then, his stock could rise considerably.

He is a preseason All-American by Baseball America and the magazine's top-rated junior college prospect in the nation. But more important for Coach Bob Lofrano, Birkins is the guy he's banking on to help the Brahmas defend their Western State Conference Southern Division title.

Birkins will start against Canada of Redwood City on Friday in the Palomar tournament, where Pierce opens its 11th season under Lofrano.

"We expect him to go out there and help us to win," Lofrano said.

Lofrano is counting on others to make the Brahmas competitive. The Brahmas last season had a 19-8 conference record and advanced to the second round of the Southern California playoffs but lost twice in the double-elimination tournament and finished 26-15.

Redshirt sophomore left-hander Joel Kirsten, freshman Jesse Kozlowski from Westlake and Phil Polanco, a former Notre Dame pitcher who spent last season at the University of San Francisco and is recovering from arm surgery, complement Birkins.

Slick-fielding shortstop Juan Sepulveda (.413, 26 runs batted in at Kennedy last year) anchors an infield that includes freshman first basemen Jacob Ball (.342, four home runs, 34 RBIs at Chatsworth) and Randy Curtis (.444, 27 RBIs at Calabasas).

Sophomore Peter Gunny provides excellent defense in center field and freshman Sean McElroy (.376, seven home runs, 30 RBIs at El Camino Real) packs a punch in right field.

But pitching is still the name of the game, and Pierce is looking for Birkins to answer the call.

"Three days until opening day," said Birkins, who signed with UC Irvine in November. "I cross out the days every day on my calendar."

All the way down to draft day in June, no doubt.

Here's a rundown of the other teams in the region:


COACH: Joe Watts, ninth season

LAST SEASON: 16-21-1; 13-18-1, seventh in the Foothill Conference

OUTLOOK: It's hard to do battle with shaky pitching and the Marauders once again are headed for trouble. Two starters return from a staff that had an 8.86 ERA. At least the offense has clout with sophomores Brandon Golphenee (.420, 5 HRs, 37 RBI) at first base, Justin Rethwisch (.351, 24 RBIs) in the outfield and Tommy Breech (.360, 12 doubles) as a utility player. Catcher Chris Niemayer (.361 at Palmdale) and left-hander Tommy Gonzales (7-2, 3.41 ERA at Highland) are among the top newcomers.

OPENER: Tuesday at Valley, 2 p.m.



COACH: Chris Cota, first season

LAST SEASON: 22-18; 17-10, tied for second in WSC Southern Division

OUTLOOK: Freshmen abound for the Cougars. The key ones include third baseman Francisco Enriquez, a redshirt last season at USC after batting .430 with 13 doubles and 24 RBIs at San Fernando in 1999, first baseman Luis Velasquez (.379, 5 HRs, 23 RBIs at Valencia) and pitcher-first baseman Scott Sellz (6-1, 2.90 and .419, 7 HRs, 32 RBIs at Chatsworth in 1999). The pitching corps also has former All-City right-handers Ivan Hernandez (6-5, 2.02 ERA at Sylmar in 1999), who sat out last season at Cal State Northridge, and returning starter Travis Allen. Sophomores Tim Hutting at shortstop, Nolan LeMar in right field and outfielder Mike Roux, who led Glendale College with a .398 batting average last season, lend experience.

OPENER: Friday at Santa Ana in South Coast tournament at 2 p.m.



COACH: Jon Strauss, first season

LAST SEASON: 17-26; 10-17, fifth in WSC Southern Division

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