TEMECULA — Eric Morton has employed some of the Valley's most talented bats in Great Oak's quest for its first outright Southwestern League title. These days, he's got a bunch of quality arms ready to flex their muscles.
Fronted by UC Riverside-bound hurlers Zach Jemiola and Angelo Lingos, Great Oak pitchers have opened the season with just three runs allowed — two earned — through their first 27 innings, clear proof that the unit has hit the ground running after last year's 14-inning, 1-0 loss in the first round of the postseason to state power San Juan Capistrano JSerra.
"It's one of those things," Morton said. "What do you tell a team after they lose 1-0 in 14 innings except that they did a great job? So let's learn from that and carry it forward for all the guys coming back."
So far, so good.
Despite graduating one-time Southwestern League MVP Austin Bailey and an MLB-drafted bat in Cody Stewart (he ended up signing with UC Riverside), the Wolfpack love their position heading into the 2012 campaign largely because of a deep contingent of pitchers primed to take another step forward in their development.
Already, Wolfpack pitchers had combined for one unearned run allowed before Torrey Pines — a San Diego Section power boasting several NCAA Division I prospects — scratched out a pair of runs off Jemiola in the Pirate-Falcon Classic last week. Two days later, sophomore Brandon Wegman fanned seven over six scoreless innings in a 5-0 win over San Diego Scripps Ranch to send Great Oak (3-1) right back into the win column.
Better yet, Morton has used four pitchers as starters — Lingos, junior Orlando Meza, Jemiola and Wegman — and he's comfortable throwing anyone in his 10-deep staff at any time.
"The good thing is, because we are so deep, if we feel a guy is tired or if a guy just doesn't have it that day, we'll just go with someone else right away," Morton said. "We have the luxury of not having to sit around and wait for a guy to try to work through it. ... When we bring guys in, we already have a guy getting loose."
That's not to say the Wolfpack hurlers don't have experience working through tough situations. Morton has geared his offseason programs in the summer and winter toward that very notion, building schedules against playoff-caliber squads that have helped his pitchers develop both their mechanics and pitching sense in structured innings assignments. Jemiola — who also played on the Angels' elite scout team — for one, thrived getting in that kind of work in the offseason and is primed for a breakout year after posting a 1.47 earned-run average largely as the team's closer. This year, the hard-throwing right-hander is expected to serve as the team's second ace behind Lingos (4-2, 2.70 ERA last year), a second-team All-Southwestern League selection last year who spots his mid-80s fastball as well as anyone in the Southwestern League.
With Meza developing into a third starter who'll likely head the rotation next year, Wegman developing quickly and Joey Rice, Shane Gonzales, Clint Perez, Justin Haggard, B.J. Anderson and Elias Lingos all taking major strides, the Wolfpack believe they have the arms they need to take a serious run at defending league champion Vista Murrieta, a team ranked among the state's top programs at the preseason poll at calhisports.com.
"I think we should handle our own," Jemiola said. "I don't want to say anything bad, but I think we have the strongest pitching staff in our league. I think we can take down any hitting team."
And they'll do it their way, too — having all kinds of fun along the way.
Jemiola's the ring leader in that arena, too.
The yin to Lingos' reserved yang, you can find him targeting teammates in shenanigans that help lighten the mood around a sometimes serious game. One day, he might lock an unsuspecting teammate in the Port-A-Potty for a few minutes. The next, he'll rig the post in a teammate's locker so it will fall apart the second he hangs his clothes on it.
The Wolfpack, of course, know there's a time and place for everything. They start their road trips, for instance, chanting karaoke songs on the bus before quieting down to focus just before arriving to a game.
"We just have to find the right medium, because you don't want to be too loose, and I think we do have the right balance," Angelo Lingos said. "We're loose, but it doesn't cost us games because we don't know how to get serious. We know how to get serious."
Said catcher Matt Winkenweder: "Yeah, we've got a looser group. I just think it works for us."
How well it works against a tough-hitting Southwestern League — think Vista Murrieta's Jeff Moberg, the league's reigning MVP, and Temecula Valley's Dennis Morton and his area-leading seven homers a year ago — remains to be seen. Either way, the Wolfpack believe they are well-armed after several years of walking into the season with offense as their chief strength.
The Wolfpack certainly expect to hit. Their arms simply provide them with a bit more margin for error.
"Now it's a little different — especially in our yard where it is a pitcher's par; there's not a whole lot of home runs hit here," Morton said. " ... Obviously, we want to do well offensively, but what (our staff) does as a coach is you can try to get some runs earlier and hopefully that pitching staff holds up.
"It sets you up a little bit more."