Last year, some top local seniors left their imprint on the local baseball landscape.
Those included San Luis Obispo High’s Marco Murillo, The Tribune County Player of the Year. Murillo was nearly unhittable with a 6-1 record and a 0.67 earned run average.
Nipomo strikeout specialist Ryan McNeil, drafted in the third round by the Chicago Cubs, was the highest ever San Luis Obispo County pro pick.
Many teams will have big cleats to fill in replacing their stars from last year.
But some top-notch returners are back to anchor their teams.
San Luis Obispo senior shortstop Garrett Giovannelli led the PAC 7 with a .456 batting average last year.
Giovannelli was cleared in mid-February to play baseball after fully recovering from a knee injury that ended his football season in the last regular season game of the year.
Arroyo Grande left-hander Kyle Brown will try to continue his success after a 7-4 season and a 1.94 ERA as a junior.
The Eagles’ number one starter, who was an all-county second team selection last year, has a fastball in the low 80s, and a knuckle curve and changeup for his out pitches.
Los Padres League champion Templeton brings back a core group of returners and figures to be able to compete well with any county school.
“I think in past years, the PAC 7 has been the stronger baseball league, but last year I thought the LPL had the edge,” Arroyo Grande coach Brad Lachemann said. “They had some real solid players. But it’s a new year and we’ll see how things shape up this season.”
The top local teams last year included San Luis Obispo, which chalked up a 17-1 first-place record to blow away second place finishers Arroyo Grande and Paso Robles; both teams had an 11-7 league record.
“This year we have high expectations,” Giovannelli said. “We are a lot different team from last year. We had a great pitching staff with some seniors who graduated. So hopefully we can get the pitching going again.”
The Tigers (21-7 overall) will field a strong defense up the middle, including catcher R.J. Hassey, second baseman Nick Hill, centerfielder Shinjin Todd, and Giovannelli.
New coach Brian Wong has a strong baseball résumé as a former Fresno State catcher and assistant baseball coach at Bullard High in Fresno.
“We have a fairly young, new team,” Wong said last week before the start of the season. “But they’ve been working their butts off since November when we started practice. They’re anxious to get going.”
A strong contender to unseat San Luis Obispo as league champions appears to be Arroyo Grande, which returns two crafty left-handers in Brown and Daniel Ramirez, who was 5-0 with a 2.33 ERA last year.
Brown, who stands 6-foot-5, said that he has a scholarship to attend the College of Southern Nevada, the same junior college where Major League phenom Bryce Harper played.
“I’ve been working really hard to build up my strength,” Brown said. “My fastball gets up to about 83. I want to keep increasing that. I’m lifting four or five days a week and running.”
Brown threw five shutout innings, striking out six, in the team’s 4-2 season-opening win against Santa Ynez.
Lachemann said his team went from hitting 17 home runs two years ago to just one last year because of CIF requirements on bats that reduce the power off the bat for player safety.
“We’re definitely going to have to execute and do the little things like moving a guy over and getting a bunt down,” Lachemann said. “The game is not the same as when you pretty much let everyone swing away and take a rip. Coaching and execution is important. I like it that way.”
Perhaps the team that’s rebuilding the most is Paso Robles (15-13 overall last year).
Sophomore Bailey Gaither has made the transition to shortstop and will start in the infield, Paso Robles coach Derek Stroud said.
Gaither hit .333 with seven stolen bases as a freshman, earning all-county second team honors as an outfielder
“We’re an extremely young,” Stroud said. “We have only two returning position players — Bailey and left fielder Kris Paqueno.”
Paqueno hit .293 with six stolen bases last year.
Paso Robles’ pitchers will include sophomore Jonathan Baldwin, who saw limited time on the mound last year, and junior Paul Anderson, who had a 4.77 ERA in seven innings pitched.
Multi-sport athlete Rudy Binkele will throw for the Bearcats and play centerfield.
“Our guys are extremely excited about this season,” Stroud said.
Los Padres League
Templeton finished 10-2 and tied Lompoc for the league title last year.
They Eagles are led on the mound by Mitchell Pendley, who had a 3.73 ERA last year.
The Eagles have already beaten San Luis 6-3 behind three hits from Michael Frigon, an all-county second team selection last year as a junior who hit .333 with 13 RBI last year. Starter Mitchell Pendley pitched 4 1⁄3 innings and struck out three, giving up two earned runs.
Templeton followed that with a 7-0 rout of Pioneer Valley on Thursday.
“We have a lot of guys returning,” Templeton coach Brad Macomber. “We’ve lost some guys on the mound, but we have two pitchers in Spencer Howard and Andy Garretson who were injured last year back healthy again. And we have our big lefty, Mitchell Pendley, back.”
Like San Luis Obispo, Nipomo starts its season with a new coach in Rich Leavens, who has 20 years of baseball coaching experience, including the past five years at Lemoore High.
The Titans’ experienced pitching staff includes Robby Cano, Luke Shurtleff, David Stevens and Scott Nichols.
In addition to graduating a highly touted pro prospect in McNeil, the Titans also graduated 6-7 right-handed pitcher and centerfielder Marc Baker, an all-county first team pick. The Titans finished fourth in the LPL last year.
“We have about six or seven guys who played on varsity last year, but they didn’t get to play much,” Leavens said. “This season, they’ll get their shot. I like our club’s defense. We can play catch. And we’re farther along offensively than I thought we would be.”