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COC baseball preview: Little things count

A few minor tweaks could be all the Cougars need to win conference

Posted: February 12, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: February 12, 2012 1:55 a.m.

A solid College of the Canyons pitching staff will be led by two returning starters John Salas, left, and Cory Jones in 2012. The two add experience to a roster full of promising, but young talent.

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In a game with such a small margin of error, College of the Canyons baseball could be dangerously close to reviving its rich tradition.

Dangerous for the other teams in the conference, that is.

A year ago, the Cougars went 21-16 overall after losing a postseason play-in game and finishing in a three-way tie for second in the Western State Conference, South Division, where they finished 12-9.

For a COC program with three state championships and 22 conference titles, that’s not up to standard.

“We’ve got to execute. We’ve got to come through in clutch situations,” said returning starting pitcher John Salas. “That’s really what killed us last year. We didn’t get that one key hit or that key out or we threw the ball away. ... Just the little things we’ve got to work on.”

A few mistakes could have made the difference in 2012 considering COC finished just one game behind conference-champion Glendale College last year.

The difference may have to come from one of several young players getting thrown into the fire this year, specifically on the hitting side.

Just two starters return to the lineup this year — first baseman Jake Jelmini and catcher/outfielder Michael Browne — leaves the freshman class to pick up the slack.

“We were just pretty good last year offensively,” said COC head coach Chris Cota. “I don’t think we were great. At times, it was tough to send nine tough hitters to the plate. I think that this year, 1-9, we’re going to be able to send nine tough outs to the plate.”

In 2011, the Cougars hit .269 as a team, which was sixth in conference, and they hit just 17 home runs.

In five games this season, the Cougars have already hit five homers.

Though the team did lose 2011 WSC South Player of the Year Juan Perez and former MLB draft pick Cal Vogelsang, Cota said he feels good about their replacements.

The top new talent in the lineup is Drew Sandler, a sophomore transfer from the University of California, Irvine.

Though Sandler injured an intercostal muscle near his ribs in COC’s season opener last weekend against El Camino College, Cota said it doesn’t appear to be a long-term issue.

Regardless of the setback, the lineup appears to be making a lot of progress in a hurry.

“I think we gel really well,” said Jelmini, who is hitting .600 with seven RBIs and seven doubles so far. “Everybody gets along really well. A lot of the guys that are in here this year, I think they’re kind of like the missing piece to our puzzle.”

Jelmini signed with the University of Oregon in November and he’ll move on to play for the Ducks next season.

Another top prospect on the team is sophomore starting pitcher Cory Jones, who went 2-2 with a 2.47 ERA in six starts last year before a biceps injury ended his season early.

The hard-throwing right-hander said he’s back to full strength and only expects to get better as he gets deeper into the season.

“I couldn’t wait to get back on the mound,” Jones said of the injury. “Honestly, during the fall, I only got on the mound once and really got to start pitching three weeks ago when I started really getting into it. So it’s been really short for me to get back to where I need to be.”

Outside of Jones and Salas, the pitching staff is loaded up with new, but promising arms.

Early in the season, pitch counts will be limited, which will give players like Canyon High graduate Icezack Flemming, freshman Alberto Flores and left-hander Winston Lavendier chances to showcase themselves out of the bullpen.

Though Jones and Salas are clearly the top two options as starters, David Haerle is the frontrunner for the third starting spot.

He saw limited action out of the bullpen last season.

“I don’t think you could consider any of us an ace or a certain relief pitcher,” Salas said. “We’re all the same. Wherever they want to put us, they’ll put us and we’ll get out there and execute.”

Pitchers were also given another advantage last year with the introduction of new regulations on aluminum bats throughout all levels of college baseball.

As a result of the new, less powerful bats, the Cougars saw their team ERA drop from 6.03 in 2010 to 3.53 last year.

Hitters are claiming the bats have added a little bit of power this year compared to the 2011 versions, but it doesn’t change the approach against what Cota considers a strong pitching conference.

“To me, good pitching beats good hitting every time,” Cota said. “If pitchers stay down in the zone and induce a lot of ground balls, it doesn’t matter.”

It will be an early test for freshman hitters like Chad DeLaGuerra, a second baseman who’s been hitting second in the lineup.

Other freshman expected to contribute are Garrett Fedor, a shortstop competing for the leadoff spot, as well as a pair of local products in Valencia graduate James Bonds and Saugus grad Justin Sheehan.

Bonds is vying for a spot in right field and Sheehan has been playing designated hitter, but Cota said the final lineup isn’t set in stone.

“It’s baby steps,” Jelmini said. “Right now, we’re kind of just getting into the season. Once we hit conference play, for sure we’ll be playing pretty well.”

COC hopes those baby steps turn into a leap to its first WSC South championship since 2009, which could begin on March 3 in the conference opener against Los Angeles Mission College.

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