Northeast Times

The comeback kids

Wash­ing­ton vrs. Ry­an base­ball play­offs game, Fri­day, May 17, 2013, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

There was a brief time, prob­ably some­where around the even­ing of April 19, when Juan Namnun thought his Frank­ford base­ball team might be doomed.

Down three vet­er­an starters on a team already rife with in­ex­per­i­ence and spiral­ing down the Pub­lic League Di­vi­sion A stand­ings, it ap­peared Frank­ford’s reign at the top was com­ing to an end.

After a hu­mi­li­at­ing 16-0 loss to Prep Charter at home that April af­ter­noon, the two-time de­fend­ing league cham­pi­ons looked fin­ished, an ab­so­lute shell of the crisp, fun­da­ment­ally sound teams Namnun was used to field­ing.

“We’ve nev­er really had scores like that at Frank­ford as long as I’ve been in­volved, and cer­tainly in my ca­reer here we’ve nev­er been 15-run ruled,” said Namnun, a former Pi­on­eer play­er who came on board as an as­sist­ant to long­time coach Bob Peffle in 2000. “It was the most hum­bling, awaken­ing mo­ment you can have.”

The loss to Prep Charter was Frank­ford’s fourth in the di­vi­sion, and the Pi­on­eers would go on to lose four more be­fore the reg­u­lar sea­son con­cluded. Those eight de­feats were five more than the Pi­on­eers had lost in the last two sea­sons com­bined.

But then, seem­ingly out of nowhere, something funny happened. 

This Frank­ford team, the one with the All-League quar­ter­back in his first year of varsity base­ball who re­fused to let the ship sink, found second life. If Namnun ever thought his team was dead in the wa­ter, he nev­er let on to them, and his Pi­on­eers re­war­ded him with a start­ling late-sea­son renais­sance.

All at once, they wel­comed back key in­jured play­ers Kev­in Montero (first base), Car­los Ramirez (pitch­er) and Eduardo Sanc­hez (catch­er). Then, en­ter­ing the AAAA play­offs limp­ing but still stand­ing, the Pi­on­eers nipped Edis­on, 4-3. Two days later in the second round, they got by Ol­ney, who had done Frank­ford a fa­vor by knock­ing off Cent­ral in the pre­vi­ous game. 

Sud­denly, the Pi­on­eers were fa­cing a ti­tan­ic AAAA cham­pi­on­ship show­down with fierce rival Wash­ing­ton, the reg­u­lar sea­son Di­vi­sion A champs. The win­ner would ad­vance to the “Tour­ney of Cham­pi­ons,” the league’s ver­sion of the Fi­nal Four, with an over­all cham­pi­on­ship up for grabs.

But Frank­ford? This middle-of-the-pack, in­jury-decim­ated team? No shot, right?

Wrong.

“Listen, we took a lot of lumps, and we were miss­ing three top play­ers for a month,” Namnun said. “But it was after that Prep Charter loss when I heard one of our guys say, ‘Do you real­ize how many times we’ve done this to oth­er teams? Let’s learn from this. When we get to the play­offs, it will be dif­fer­ent.’ That’s when I kind of said to my­self, ‘You know, maybe we’ll be OK.’”

No mat­ter how down they were and no mat­ter how gut­ted his start­ing lineup was by last year’s gradu­ation, the fact re­mained that nobody in the league had more big-game ex­per­i­ence than Namnun, who has won sev­en league titles since he joined Frank­ford’s staff, in­clud­ing three of the last five as head coach. 

That would come in handy in Fri­day’s game at Wash­ing­ton. The Eagles hung a 4-spot on Ramirez in the bot­tom of the third, and Frank­ford entered the fifth in­ning still trail­ing, 4-2. However, RBI singles off the bats of Sanc­hez and second base­man Jo­si­ah Cedeno knot­ted the score, set­ting the stage for a thrill­ing fin­ish. 

When Ramirez got in­to a jam on the mound to start the sixth, Namnun summoned Tim Di­Gior­gio from cen­ter field. Di­Gior­gio, who passed for over 4,000 yards and more than 40 touch­downs in two sea­sons as Frank­ford’s QB, nev­er played varsity base­ball be­fore this sea­son, but here was Namnun (also the foot­ball team’s de­fens­ive co­ordin­at­or) call­ing on him in a des­per­ate at­tempt to keep the sea­son alive.

“Tim Di­Gior­gio is the defin­i­tion of a gamer,” Namnun said. “He came to me that morn­ing in school and told me, ‘Coach, if you need me, I will give you everything I have.’ He may lack the base­ball ex­per­i­ence, but he makes up for it with a huge amount of guts and grit.”

The guts and grit were on full dis­play for the fi­nal nine outs against Wash­ing­ton, as Di­Gior­gio whiffed six and didn’t al­low a hit. With the score tied in the top of the sixth and shortstop Kidanny Cumba stand­ing 90 feet away, Di­Gior­gio de­livered the go-ahead sac­ri­fice fly to cen­ter field in a game Frank­ford ul­ti­mately won, 7-4. 

The vic­tory set the stage for a Monday semi­final match-up with fa­mil­i­ar foe Prep Charter. This time around, the third time was the charm for Frank­ford against P.C. (Prep Charter also won, 6-5, on April 1) as Ramirez tossed a com­plete-game five-hit­ter in the Pi­on­eers’ 3-2 win. 

Now, stun­ningly, Namnun’s group will some­how be com­pet­ing for its third con­sec­ut­ive Pub­lic League cham­pi­on­ship on Thursday against Frank­lin Towne Charter.

“Over the course of the sea­son, we’ve learned how to lose and how to win after be­ing down,” Namnun said. “When we got down 4-1 in the third (against Wash­ing­ton), in no way was it an end-of-the-world at­ti­tude.”

Namnun main­tains that he nev­er gave up on his team reach­ing this point, though he did ad­mit some doubt crept in when Frank­ford was rav­aged by in­jur­ies. He said, “I nev­er called it a year, but I knew it would be tough.”

As a res­ult, Namnun could very well be on the cusp of what would be his most re­mark­able title yet. His pre­vi­ous three title teams were loaded with vet­er­an tal­ent that was ex­pec­ted to win. This one? 

“I spent a lot of time telling these young­er kids that teams will be gun­ning for them simply be­cause of the name on the front of their jer­sey,” Namnun said. “We were at 3-6 or 3-7 in the league, but these guys all still showed up to prac­tice the next day, bust­ing their humps to get bet­ter.”

There were many standouts in Fri­day’s win, from Di­Gior­gio to Cumba (3-for-3, three runs scored) to Montero, who is seek­ing his own third straight title be­fore his jour­ney to be­come a pro­fes­sion­al ball­play­er be­gins.

Re­gard­less of how it ends this week in the Pub­lic League title game, these Pi­on­eers will play on. By beat­ing Wash­ing­ton and win­ning the AAAA cham­pi­on­ship, Frank­ford qual­i­fied for the state play­offs. This is cer­tainly a nice ac­com­plish­ment, but, as he’s want to do, Namnun is think­ing big­ger, for the rest of this sea­son and bey­ond.

“I want to be the best pub­lic school in this city,” he said. “But re­gard­less of where we end up, I’ll have two dis­tinct memor­ies of the 2013 sea­son. One, the amaz­ing growth of the young guys and how they al­ways stayed pos­it­ive; two, I’m ex­tremely proud of my seni­ors. They knew it was an up­hill battle, one people didn’t think they were up for. We were sup­posed to be re­build­ing, but here we are.”

In the mo­ments fol­low­ing the come-from-be­hind win over Wash­ing­ton, Namnun shook a re­port­er’s hand and ex­claimed, “Who would have thought?!”

“Win­ning breeds win­ning,” he said. “Even with the youth on this team, I al­ways thought that if I can get them a little bit of play­off ex­per­i­ence, then they can learn to win at this level. 

“They’ve already made be­liev­ers out of me with the char­ac­ter they pos­sess. I’ll re­mem­ber this group fondly for a long time.” ••

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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