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These Imperial Valley ballplayers are in a league of their own

March 27, 2001|By ERIC GALVAN, Sports Writer

It's hard to put a finger on what separates Central Union High School's Humberto Cardenas, Imperial High's Brett Cochran and Calexico's Diego Lopez from the rest of the Imperial Valley League's baseball players; they're just a cut above the rest.

With the IVL season in its early stages, all three have contributed to their squads and set the tone in what should be one of the most competitive battles since the IVL's inception.

All three are similar in what they bring to their teams as all-around players, yet there are differences that set them worlds apart.

Standing 5 feet 10 1/2-inches and weighing 190 pounds, the 17-year-old Cardenas may be the purest hitter of the three, if not the entire Valley.


In Central's 2000 campaign, Cardenas finished with a .346 batting average and proved time and time again capable of taking any pitcher deep in any situation. Now in his fourth varsity season, Cardenas continues to put up big offensive numbers as his .461 average has him near the top of the IVL. He has a team-high 11 RBIs to go with four runs in hitting from the No. 3 spot, although teams have pitched around him.

"If there's such a thing as a natural hitter, then Bert is that," said Central coach Dave Middleton. "He's a very aggressive hitter and he doesn't cheat himself at the plate. He makes every at-bat count."

Cardenas also gets it done on defense. He's become one of the premier shortstops in the Valley, but where he is utilized most by the Spartans is the mound. Cardenas is a pure power pitcher. He has about five pitches in his repertoire. He can mix in a slider, breaking ball, change-up and sinker. But he'd rather use his velocity to blow away his opposition.

"At first I'll try to overpower a batter, then I'll just change it up to throw them off," said Cardenas, who said he'd rather be on the mound than in the field. "The reason I'd rather be pitching is because I like to control what happens in a game. I want it to be in my hands. I know that I can go out there and change a game just by my pitching."

While Cardenas utilizes natural ability, Imperial's Cochran is a product of dedication. Possibly the hardest worker of the bunch, Cochran has spent much effort fine-tuning his game.

In the past two years, Cochran has played in more than 100 games in becoming one of the best five-tool players in the Valley.

At 6 feet, 165 pounds, Cochran plays shortstop for Imperial, but like Cardenas, is the Tigers' pitching ace. In 2000 Cochran earned Desert Mountain League MVP honors and was a CIF San Diego Section Division III first-team selection, going 10-2 with a 2.49 ERA.

"For me, playing shortstop is where I feel most comfortable, but I think the team needs me more for my pitching," said the 17-year-old senior, who this year has a 1.74 ERA with 34 strikeouts in only 20 innings.

As if his pitching numbers aren't enough, Cochran has been contributing on offense. Coming off a season where he batted .357, Cochran has continued his steady pace, batting .353 with a home run and six runs. He has a .500 on-base percentage and a .529 slugging average.

Said Imperial coach William Estes of Cochran: "He's gotten to the point where he is because of his work ethic. I think his great work ethic, dedication and preparation separate him from everyone else.

"What also separates him is his great attitude. And attitude is everything. He's been busting his ass for the past two years and has utilized his talents. I think that's why he's one of the best all-around athletes around here."

If Cardenas is one of the best natural athletes and Cochran the product of a strong work ethic, Calexico's Lopez is the perfect combination of both.

At 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds, Lopez has the natural tools. Accompanied by a strong work ethic, Lopez may be the best of this bunch. Already considered a top-flight catcher, Lopez is taking his cannon of an arm to the mound.

This year will mark Lopez's first major effort as a pitcher after sticking strictly to catching the past three seasons. Thus far, things have been working out quite nicely for Lopez. In 20 2/3 innings, Lopez has K'd 27 batters and has a 3.05 ERA. Earlier this season Lopez had a no-hitter and one-hitter, but because of errors Lopez took losses in both outings.

While his 0-3 record doesn't indicate it, Lopez is considered one of the best pitchers in the IVL, but for head coach Sergio Rubio, Lopez is best used behind the plate.

"He's definitely more valuable to us as a catcher. He's a bigger asset as a catcher and having him on the mound is just an added asset," said Rubio, who is one of the few coaches who lets his catcher call the pitches. "He's been catching long enough that he knows what I'd want. So I let Diego call the games. He's the one that's out there and sees what's going on, not me. So I'm comfortable with him calling it."

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