The Laney College baseball team has high hopes for the 2018 season. Coaches and players are training their eyes on the state championship tournament.
The team’s first step is to have the best or second-best record in the Bay Valley Conference. Otherwise, nabbing a spot can be tricky.
“Whoever wins conference goes to the playoffs but then you have wildcards, and those go with best record overall. Also the toughness of your schedule goes into it,” starting pitcher Sonny Brandwood said.
The 2018 season started Jan. 26, and the first 20 games are against teams from other conferences. On Feb. 8, Laney beat the Santa Rosa Junior College Bearcubs, 7–6. They were ranked second in the state last year and are ranked first in Northern California this year.
Laney got an early lead in the top of the first inning. By the seventh, the game was tied, 5–5, when third baseman Armando Tungui scored from third on a wild pitch. “It felt good,” Brandwood said. “It was a tough game but we got it. Just a grind the whole time.”
Starting center fielder Kevin Whitaker got two RBI, one on a sacrifice bunt and another on a single to right field in the eighth inning that tied the game at 6–6. “We don’t need to hit the ball out of the park all the time,” head coach Francisco Zapata said.
“If we can play baseball correctly, use our strengths, we can win the games.”
After nine games this season the Eagles’ record is 5–4. They have a three-game winning streak.
Liam Knowles, who plays first and third base for Laney, is batting .423, second-best in the BVC. Relief pitcher Galen Manhard is tied for first in the state for most saves, with three. Starting March 13, the Eagles will play within the BVC exclusively, which is comprised of 10 teams.
A strength for the team this season “is the discipline,” said Eagles fan Orlando Gaitan, who is also the father of Laney outfielder Jerry Gaitan. “They need to work a little more to get the rhythm, but they’re on it.”
Zapata, known to players as “Coach Z,” said the team can find that rhythm. “We’re pretty balanced,” he said. “I think pitching is a strength, and we can do some things offensively.”
Ryan Gibson, Ricardo Hernandez, Robert Busch, and Brandwood are the Eagles starting pitchers — so far. Gibson has a fastball that’s been clocked at 91 mph. Hernandez and Brandwood throw fastballs that reach 88 mph, but simple speed isn’t everything. “My change-up probably is my best pitch,” Brandwood said. “It keeps them off balance. It’s about a 10 mph difference from my fastball.”
Zapata said he sees signs that the team is “starting to jell.” The game at home against the Modesto Junior College Pirates on Feb. 10 is an example.
The fourth inning involved a contentious call at home that left the Eagles without a run they deserved. Shortstop Ryan Jenkins hit a single and wound up at third base. He broke for home when Modesto’s catcher dropped the ball, but he was called out at the plate for the final out. “We got it on film, and he was safe,” Zapata said.
“That’s a run you can use to win. Psychologically, it can mess up the flow when it’s a close game. They know that it’s unfair, but they didn’t get down and they pulled it out.” The Eagles won the game 4–2.
In the 2016 season, Laney had the best record in the BVC, winning 20 games and losing only four. Last year they didn’t make it to the playoffs, but they came close to clinching one of the top spots in the conference.
“It was between us and Los Medanos College [for second place]. We beat them two games out of three that last series, but they had a better Rating Percentage Index (RPI) so they went to the playoffs in front of us,” Zapata said.
RPI is a team’s win-loss record, with additional factors that consider the difficulty of the teams’ schedules. It is used for ranking in college sports where each team has opponents that may not be ranked equally.
The Eagles hope their RPI won’t have much of an impact this season. “First things first,” Zapata said. “You want to win the league and that automatically qualifies you for state playoffs. And when you hit the playoffs, of course you want to win state as well.”
The Eagles play their next home game against Feather River College on Sunday, Feb. 18, at 1 p.m.
by Eva Hannan is a Tower staff writer.