Having the luxury of trotting out three good starting pitchers became bigger than ever when the PAC 8 baseball format changed this season from a two games to a three-game-per-week schedule.
Lucky for San Luis Obispo, their aces come in threes.
Seniors Jeremy Jess and Jake Rodgers, and freshman Cooper Benson, have been lights out this season as the top-three starters and have the Tigers off to a 6-0 start and looking like the early favorites to win the PAC 8.
When examining the SLO High starters, it’s best to do it a day at a time.
If you watch Rodgers pitch on Tuesday afternoon, you better not blink. You might miss a pitch. The senior righty doesn’t like to lolly gag on the mound between pitches: “Grip it and rip it” is the motto.
“I like to keep things moving fast because I know when I am in the field, I get kind of bored,” Rodgers said. “It’s more fun when you keep it going and the energy level is much higher.”
The defense loves the quick pace. Hitters? Not so much.
“He just throws a lot of strikes and commands his pitches well,” said Jess, who has played with Rodgers since their Cal Ripken League days. “And his quick pace really helps him too because it doesn’t allow the batters to settle in on him.”
So far this season, his relentless pursuit of the strike zone has yet to yield an earned run. As the Tuesday starter, Rodgers is 6-0 with an ERA of 0.00. He has given up 17 hits in 36 innings.
In his best performance of the season, Rodgers one-hit Enochs of Modesto in a 9-0 Tigers win at the San Luis Obispo Spring Tournament. He turned in a complete-game, six-strikeout performance last week in a 4-3 win over Paso Robles.
You could say Rodgers is in the zone right now. Teammates say that, during a start, he is in another world.
“Especially during the game, he is kinda just a cloud the whole time,” Jess said.
“I will just say something then not finish it,” Rodgers said of when teammates try to talk to him on Tuesdays.
It’s a departure from his usual outgoing personality. When asked Monday what workouts he did during the offseason to increase his velocity by a few miles per hour, he answered frankly: “Curls for the girls.”
When he does finish a sentence during a game, teammates listen.
“We were losing to Paso Robles last week, and I called a team meeting and was like, ‘Let’s wake up,’ and we ended up winning, so that was good,” Rodgers said.
This Tuesday, Rodgers threw a complete game two-hitter to out-duel Arizona commit Matt Sauer and lead the Tigers to a 1-0 win over Righetti.
On Wednesday afternoon, it’s the kid’s turn.
But Benson isn’t your average high school rookie. The hard-throwing lefty has been playing in big games against top youth competition and impressing scouts for the better part of two years. When he started throwing in the upper 80s last summer, the big colleges came calling. Six Pac-12 schools, including UCLA, USC and Cal, made offers.
After a winter spent touring around each school, Benson, 15, decided to commit to Arizona State before beginning his freshman season.
For now, he’s the Tigers’ Wednesday starter with the brightest baseball future.
Last week in a nine-strikeout performance during an 8-2 win over Paso Robles, Benson hit a pair of personal milestones. Not only was it his first complete game of his high school career, but someone with a radar gun clocked his fast ball at 90 miles per hour.
“I was like, ‘You are kidding,’” Benson said. “I couldn’t even believe it but my dad was like yeah you did.”
The 6-foot, 180-pound Benson has pitched a total of 22 innings this season and has a 1.59 ERA. His velocity hovers in the upper 80s most nights.
“It’s definable fun to have that to work with,” head coach Brian Wong said. “Not too many kids are like him.”
His go-to pitch is a two-seam fastball that tails in on right-handed hitters, and he is just now getting his slider under control — a scary thought for PAC 8 hitters.
“I don’t throw one too much,” Benson said. “I got a couple strikeouts last week, so that was cool. It’s improving.”
There are still growing pains. Two weeks ago in a 3-1 loss to Marantha, Benson gave up three earned runs, all on 0-2 counts.
“The next week, he didn’t give up any hits on 0-2,” Wong said. “So it’s just about getting better little by little.”
Mr. Friday Night
Just when teams think it can’t get any worse after facing a pitcher that hasn’t yielded an earned run and a freshman flame thrower, they get the PAC 8 strikeout leader in Jess on Friday under the lights.
Jess, a senior who has committed to play at Pomona Pitzer next year, is somewhat of a hybrid of the two starters before him. He features a little bit of power, devastating curve ball and the brains of a four-year varsity player.
“It’s really nice because as a Friday starter because I get to see both Jake and Cooper throw, and it helps me pick up on the hitter’s tendencies, so I learn from them as the week goes on,” Jess said.
Jess said he has gained “a little bit of velocity but overall just pitching knowledge. I feel like I have grown as a player and a student of the game.”
In his first six starts, Jess is 4-0 with a 2.10 ERA and a league-leading 34 strikeouts. That’s why when the Tigers lost three of four games in the SLO Tournament, they didn’t panic.
“It wasn’t too big of a setback because we kind of looked at it like last year we didn’t do too hot in league, but we did really well in the tournament,” Jess said. “So we are thinking this year we are going to do well in league. Overall it didn’t put us down too much.”
When one of the starters gets knocked around, which hasn’t happened much this season, Wong looks to Ollie Hicks and Jake’s brother, Benny Rodgers, in relief. Hicks is the setup man, Ben Rodgers is essentially the closer.
The Tigers have given up an average of two runs per game during the season. If that keeps up, it will be hard for anyone to beat them.
Last year was a down year for San Luis Obispo. The team finished with a 5-9 record and a seventh-place finish in the PAC 8.
But in Wong’s fourth year at the helm and 13 returners from last year’s team, he’s starting to see his program flourish.
“Two years ago, I think we were starting four or five sophomores on varsity, and they were just getting the crap kicked out of them,” Wong said. “But it was good, and they needed it, and it just built for the future, and that’s why this year they are so much more confident.”
Wong has his deepest team with a nice mix of speed and youth. And the team is hitting well to go along with a stacked pitching staff.
Switch-hitting freshman Brooks Lee, son of Cal Poly head baseball coach Larry Lee, is leading the Tigers with a .413 batting average and lead off speedster Matthew Mundorf is close behind with a .404 average. Overall the team is hitting .306.
“Last season we had a little bit of a worse attitude. Sometimes is the other teams got off to an early lead we would sometimes just give up,” Rodgers said. “But we got some new freshman and sophomores coming up and they just have that winning attitude that added to what we already had.”
Wong points at the next two weeks as a key in the team’s season with a three-game series against Righetti this week and three more games against Arroyo Grande next week.
“With just have to maintain our focus,” Wong said. “With the (Spring) tournament, we play eight-straight weeks with three or four games a week. I guarantee no other high school league in the country does that.”
Despite the hefty schedule, Wong knows he can count on his pitching stable.
“The key to this league is having three horses,” Wong said. “If you’ve got three quality starters and one or two good relievers, you’ve got an advantage against everyone else in the league.”