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Wildcat duo set to lead team in IVL

March 19, 2002|By ERIC GALVAN

Sports Writer

A year ago Brawley Union High baseball coach Pedro Carranza was one game from winning his second Imperial Valley League title in as many years as Brawley head coach.

Despite finishing with a 10-2 IVL mark, the mostly junior- and sophomore-laden Wildcats finished one game behind league champion Calexico.

Many around the team know what hurt Brawley was lack of senior leadership. A fairly young and inexperienced Wildcat squad wasn't quite ready to nab a championship.

Things could be different this year. The Wildcats have 12 returners set to make the championship run, six in the starting lineup.

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Brawley will kick off league play as it hosts Southwest at 3:15 today as the favorite to take the league, according to a pre-season coaches' poll.

Leading the Wildcats will be the IVL's consensus best pitcher in Brandon Burnett and consensus top offensive player in David Santana. Both are seniors.

Last year the 18-year-old Santana finished in the top three in batting average in the IVL, hitting .435 with 28 RBI, and adding six stolen bases and two home runs. Santana was a first-team all-league selection, a first-team CIF San Diego Section Division III selection and was selected by the Collegiate Baseball newspaper as one of the top players in California.

And he's ahead of last year's pace, batting .533, with 10 runs, six RBI and a home run.

"I think David could be one of the best pure hitters I've seen since (former Wildcat and professional minor league star) Tim Howard," said Carranza. "He's just a natural hitter. Most of the things he's been able to do have been because of his natural ability. He's just pretty good about keeping an even keel.

"Last year he walked something like 17 times and only struck out twice. That's what you call a pro hitter. Ask any good hitter and they'll tell you that they always try to walk more than they strike out. And last year he was able to do that," said Carranza.

With Santana's natural talent, Carranza will stick him in the No. 3 slot in his lineup and even considered putting him at the top of the lineup because of his ability to reach base regularly.

Despite having a break-out season last year, Carranza, other coaches and even Santana think he could have had an even better year had he put more work in during the offseason.

Knowing that, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Santana put in the extra time and effort into improving his game by playing winter baseball, which he said helped him dramatically.

Even with the high expectations, Santana said he doesn't let the pressure get to him.

"I really don't feel any pressure at all and I don't let that bother me. When I go up to bat, I just go and try to do the best I can," said Santana, the team's center fielder. "I like playing this sport and to me, it's all about having fun."

Said Burnett of Santana: "He could go without swinging a bat for six months, pick it up and still hit better than most people just because he has so much natural talent. When we face each other in practice we go back and forth. He'll win sometimes and I'll win sometimes. But we just respect each other as two of the best in the Valley."

Then there's the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Burnett, who had his struggles in 2001, going 2-3 with a 6.09 ERA with 21 Ks in 23 innings.

Despite his subpar performance a season ago, he is considered the top pitcher in the IVL. This year he's proving exactly why as he's compiled a 2-1 record with a save and has struck out 13 in 12 innings. He's only given up three earned runs and has a 1.75 ERA.

"I really don't feel any pressure on me because I know I have good players backing me up making plays on defense. That and we're hitting well this year, which makes things easier," said Burnett. "I know that I don't have to go out there and strike out every batter that I face. And I know that if I give up a run it's OK because we'll come right back."

Like Santana, Burnett credits his early success this year with pre-season training, working out in winter ball but also working with Calexico High graduate and Cleveland Indian minor league pitching coach Ruben Niebla.

"I give a lot of credit to my coaches and to Ruben. With the pre-season work I put in, we've basically been working on perfecting my mechanics because that's where it all starts," said the 17-year-old Burnett.

What may work against Burnett are health issues, mainly arm problems that hindered his play last season.

"If his health permits him, he could be dominant. He's been blessed with an arm. He just needs to maintain the rest of his body," said Carranza.

What could make Burnett even more dominant is the addition of a slider to go with his fastball and curve. With those three pitches and a strong defense, he thinks he could accomplish goals he set for himself of losing only one game the rest of the year and keeping his ERA under 2.00.

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