The bullpen is one of baseball’s distinctive features. At Pershing Park, it is a fenced enclosure along the left-field line that resembles a cage. This summer’s occupants are a gnarly bunch of pitchers assembled by Santa Barbara Foresters manager Bill Pintard. “Bill calls us the Zooks,” said Brad Demco. “We’re a bunch of animals down here. You can’t tame the Zooks.”
Demco and his fellow flingers do the taming. The pitching staff’s earn-run-average is 2.63, a big reason the Foresters had a 23-7 record through last weekend and were well on their way to another first-place finish in the California Collegiate League (CCL).
Careful not to wear out the arms of still-developing college players, Pintard sends waves of hurlers into each game. Twenty-four men have taken the mound for the 2019 Foresters. Luke Taggart, logging 28 innings in six appearances, has put in the most work.
Foremost among the relief pitchers are Demco and Hunter Breault, a pair that has yet to allow a run in 26 1/3 combined innings. They have limited opposing batters to five hits. Demco had a stretch of nine hitless innings. “A bullpen no-hitter,” he said.
Pintard called on them to finish off last Sunday’s 9-4 victory over the Orange County Riptide, the Foresters’ stiffest rival this season. Demco, a southpaw, struck out the side with one walk in the seventh inning. The righthander Breault put a couple batters on in the eighth but induced an inning-ending double play off a comebacker, and he concluded a 1-2-3 ninth with strikeout.
In last week’s CCL Prospect Game — a display of the league’s talent at the Major League Academy in Compton — Breault started for Pintard’s Nationals. The fireballer from Oregon mowed down the top of the Americans lineup, striking out two of them, then sat down and watched the Nationals go on to win, 5-1. For setting the tone in that inning, Breault was named Most Valuable Player — shades of Shane Bieber, who pitched a perfect inning before his hometown fans in Cleveland and was named MVP of the Major League All-Star Game.
“I didn’t think it was possible,” Breault said of his award. He pointed out that two other Foresters pitchers, Cole Quintanilla and Ryan Bergert, combined for three strikeouts in the ninth. “Good, young, live arms come to Santa Barbara and always do well for the team,” said Breault, who came back for a second summer with the Foresters. “This is a place you have a great time and get better as a baseball player.”
Demco, who formerly pitched for Sam Houston State, said he soon expects to land an offer from another Division 1 school.
During the Prospect Game, Pintard was interviewed by Fox Sports West and explained why he has spent the last 25 summers fielding the Foresters. “It’s really easy for me,” he said. “I love to do it. I tell them, ‘I get to watch you guys play baseball and I don’t have to buy a ticket.’”
He does have to help raise funds to send them to Wichita every August for the National Baseball Congress World Series, but that’s another attraction. The Foresters won a record seventh crown last year in the nation’s oldest amateur baseball tournament. Pintard said, “The thrill of being the last team standing — I get bumps to think about it.”
Through last weekend, the Foresters had a record of 989-303 since Pintard took over in 1995. Nine games remain in the regular season, and with the CCL playoffs at Thousand Oaks and their next trip to Wichita, they could conceivably win No. 1,000 before this summer is out.
While the pitching has been solid, Santa Barbara’s bats have been making noise lately as well. Eric Kennedy, a speedy outfielder, is hitting .380 in the lead-off spot. Generally known for putting the ball in play and flying around the bases, the Foresters have legitimate power-hitters in Fresno State’s Zack Presno, Stanford’s Nick Bellafronto, and Cal-Berkeley’s Quentin Selma.
Santa Barbara’s last weekend homestand at Pershing Park will be this Saturday, July 20, against the Saints (6 p.m.), and Sunday against the Academy Barons (2 p.m.).
ALL-STAR STUFF: The All-Star Game in Cleveland was replete with Santa Barbara connections. Bieber was the big story. He was a UCSB walk-on out of Laguna Hills, went on to pitch the Gauchos into the 2016 College World Series, and made a meteoric rise into the major leagues after being drafted in the fourth round by Cleveland.
Two Santa Barbara natives, Jeff McNeil of the New York Mets and James McCann of the Chicago White Sox, made their All-Star debuts.
McNeil flied out in his only at-bat, but that hardly put a damper on his sensational season. As of Sunday, he led the major leagues with his .349 batting average. In an era of the long-ball, the 27-year-old infielder/outfielder slaps the ball around in the fashion of Wade Boggs or Ichiro Suzuki.
McNeil grew up in Santa Barbara, learned to swing a bat at Batty’s on Milpas, attended Foresters baseball camps, and played in the Goleta Little League. His family moved to Nipomo, and after graduating from Nipomo High, he came to play for the Foresters in 2010. “I weighed 145 pounds,” he recalled when he was inducted into the Foresters Hall of Fame.
McNeil was an impactful player out of Long Beach State when he played for the Foresters in 2011, helping them win their third NBC World Series crown. He made his debut for the Mets last year and swung his way into the hearts of their fans.
McNeil has gotten his weight up to 190, thanks to his wife, Tatiana. As he told the Hall of Fame gathering at the Carriage Museum in February, “I ate her chicken parmesan every day for a year.”
McCann also was a Goleta Little Leaguer and a catcher at Dos Pueblos High and Arkansas. He had an eventful game for the winning American League All-Stars, lacing a single in his only at-bat and making a lunging catch of a pop fly for the last out of the eighth inning with the potential tying and winning runs in scoring position.
When McCann was still a DP student, he accompanied teammate Chris Joyce, a Foresters pitcher, on a road trip to San Luis Obispo in 2007. It was his 17th birthday, and Pintard put him behind the plate for an inning. Although he never took an at-bat for the team, the Foresters can lay claim to McCann as one of their 48 players who have gone to the big leagues.