Finding their way

— Frank­ford is off to a per­fect 6-0 mark in Pub­lic League play, but the Pi­on­eers have yet to real­ize their full po­ten­tial.

Au­gusto Or­tega (left) from Frank­ford and Al­ex­an­der Chase from Wash­ing­ton High School dur­ing a game, Monday, April 16, 2012, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouch­nikova)


One of the de­fin­ing char­ac­ter­ist­ics of a good team in any sport is its abil­ity to “win ugly.”

Frank­ford base­ball surely passed that lit­mus test on Monday af­ter­noon.

The Pi­on­eers im­proved to a per­fect 6-0 in Pub­lic League Di­vi­sion A play with an 11-6 vic­tory at rival George Wash­ing­ton, but they’ll have to im­prove their de­fens­ive prowess if they want to be­come the truly “spe­cial” team that head coach Juan Namnun en­vi­sioned be­fore the sea­son star­ted.

“Frus­tra­tion gets very high when you start mak­ing routine plays not look routine,” Namnun said after watch­ing his team make four er­rors in the win over Wash­ing­ton. “We were press­ing really hard for some reas­on when we didn’t have to, which was strange to see be­cause we’re a very good de­fens­ive team. On the flip side, if a good team can’t also take ad­vant­age of an­oth­er team’s mis­takes then you prob­ably shouldn’t be win­ning the game to be­gin with.”

Namnun was re­fer­ring to the Eagles’ de­fens­ive woes, which were some­how more egre­gious than Frank­ford’s. Wash­ing­ton com­mit­ted sev­en er­rors — six of which oc­curred in the first, third and fourth in­nings when the Pi­on­eers scored all 11 of their runs.

However, the main dif­fer­ence in the two sides is that grow­ing pains were ex­pec­ted for a very young Wash­ing­ton team with a first-year coach; con­sequently, Frank­ford brought back eight of nine starters from last year’s team that won the Pub­lic League cham­pi­on­ship, so the men­tal lapses with the gloves were some­what sur­pris­ing.

Luck­ily for Frank­ford fans, their team’s vet­er­an play­ers found a way to win des­pite scratch­ing out the same num­ber of hits as Wash­ing­ton er­rors. When the Eagles provided ex­tra op­por­tun­it­ies for Frank­ford, the Pi­on­eers cap­it­al­ized by steal­ing eight bases and con­stantly put­ting them­selves in scor­ing po­s­i­tion. Leadoff hit­ter Au­gusto Or­tega ac­coun­ted for half of his team’s steals (he’s now a per­fect 17-for-17 in stolen-base at­tempts this sea­son), reach­ing base four times and scor­ing three runs. Or­tega’s the quick­est play­er on a very fast Frank­ford team, which proved to be the X-factor as the two rivals took turns trad­ing de­fens­ive gaffes early in the game.

“The one thing we do have is a ton of speed, and we em­phas­ize in prac­tice all the time how we need to take that ex­tra base when we have run­ners on,” Namnun said. “Those are the kinds of things we need to cap­it­al­ize on if we’re hav­ing a down of­fens­ive day, as was the case today even though we put up el­ev­en runs.”

Re­gard­ing Or­tega, his seni­or center­field­er who also tossed two shutout in­nings in re­lief, Namnun had noth­ing but praise to of­fer: “The stand­ard rule of base­ball is you want your leadoff hit­ter to cause chaos on the basepaths, and he may be the fast­est play­er in the city. Even if an­oth­er team knows he’s go­ing to steal, it’s still go­ing to be hard to throw him out. He’s one of our best hit­ters peri­od, and he’s bat­ting over .500 on the sea­son be­cause his routine ground balls have a great chance to go for singles.”

The game was close through three in­nings, with Frank­ford hold­ing a 4-3 lead over Wash­ing­ton (2-5 re­cord in Di­vi­sion A games). Then, the wheels fell off in the top of the fourth when eight straight bat­ters reached base for the Pi­on­eers — two hits, two walks, two er­rors, a field­er’s choice and a catch­er’s-in­ter­fer­ence call on Wash­ing­ton’s Dean Grande. Be­fore long, 11 bat­ters had come to the plate for Frank­ford and they sud­denly held an 11-3 lead. The Eagles ad­ded three more in the bot­tom half of the in­ning, but that was as close as they would get the rest of the way.

“De­fens­ively, we just have to come to­geth­er,” Wash­ing­ton coach Ken Geiser said. “I don’t think we’re pan­ick­ing at all … we just don’t have the ex­per­i­ence right now. Some of the mis­takes we made were real easy plays, and we can’t af­ford to give any­one, let alone a team as good as Frank­ford, six or sev­en outs in an in­ning.”

Des­pite ob­vi­ous grow­ing pains in the field, the Eagles are hit­ting the ball well. They didn’t start one seni­or on Monday, yet the lineup’s first six hit­ters all reached base at least two times. The team’s best play­er, ju­ni­or Jake Wright, launched a fourth-in­ning double and also crushed deep fly-ball outs to cen­ter and right in the first and sixth in­nings. The do-it-all Wright also got the start on the mound, and des­pite be­ing on the hill for all of Frank­ford’s 11 runs, he threw the ball much more ef­fect­ively than his line score in­dic­ated.

“Listen, they’re great kids, and I’m not mad at them at all,” Geiser said. “We’re really hit­ting the ball well, and I think after today they be­lieve they be­long on the same field as Frank­ford, which may not have been true be­fore the sea­son star­ted. What I really liked was that in in­nings four through sev­en we played good base­ball in­stead of fold­ing up and go­ing home. I have to hand it to our guys, be­cause they kept plug­ging along and didn’t give up un­til the last out.”

Namnun agreed with his coun­ter­part’s as­sess­ment.

“They’re the kind of team that you look at their re­cord be­fore the game and you just throw it out the win­dow,” Namnun said. “They al­ways play us this tough, even if they’re hav­ing a down sea­son. I ex­pect once they ma­ture that they will be very, very good next year, and they’re go­ing to con­tin­ue to give us fits be­cause they have good, qual­ity ball­play­ers.”

With a ma­jor bul­let dodged Monday against his team’s ar­chrival, Namnun is still hop­ing to see his team put to­geth­er a com­plete ef­fort, which will be a com­bin­a­tion of crisp de­fense, sol­id pitch­ing (seni­or Hec­tor Cerda tossed five in­nings to get the vic­tory) and strong of­fens­ive play (seni­or third base­man Brandon Gonza­lez col­lec­ted two more hits to keep his sea­son av­er­age above .700, which Namnun said be­fore the game was “the highest of any play­er in the en­tire state”).

“Today was ab­so­lutely our roughest day de­fens­ively, and we still have a lot of clean­ing up to do be­fore we real­ize our full po­ten­tial,” Namnun said. “The good thing about this team is that these seni­ors can­not stand any­thing less than al­most per­fect. These guys know how to push them­selves to get bet­ter, and when we get every­one on the same page it’s really go­ing to be an ex­cit­ing time.”

So would Namnun change his pre­season as­sess­ment of Frank­ford based on some of the sloppy play he saw on Monday?

“Would I change it? No, be­cause I still do be­lieve we’re that top-level team,” he said. “We have the op­por­tun­ity and the pieces to be really spe­cial, and things are go­ing well; we just haven’t put it all to­geth­er yet. We’re not there yet, but once we put those pieces to­geth­er, we will be.” ••


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