The potent bats at the top of order helped deliver Laguna Beach High’s first league title in 48 years last Tuesday at Skipper Carrillo Field.
With three regular season games remaining before CIF playoffs begin, fellow seniors Chris Paul (.493 average through Tuesday) Eric Peruzzi (.482) and Keaton Jones (.432) haven’t wasted many opportunities at the plate, sending just about every misplaced fastball or hanging slider through some infield hole or off a distant outfield wall.
Followers of Breaker baseball have come to expect that type of production from Paul and Jones, who between them have one all-CIF selection (Paul) and four all-league honors (Paul 3, Jones 2). But no one knew what to expect from Peruzzi, who transferred from J Serra after spring break last season.
In Peruzzi, Coach Jeff Sears recognized a real baseball player and an exceptional athlete. And though Peruzzi’s natural position is catcher, the coach decided to take advantage of the newcomer’s athleticism and versatility. “It made us a better team with Eric at third,” said Sears.
Feeling out of place with his new team, Peruzzi struggled through the remainder of his junior campaign at the hot corner, hitting a pedestrian .261 over the Breakers final 16 regular season games. Sears was sympathetic to Peruzzi’s searching for a way to fit in. “Ten games into the season, he joined us. It’s tough,” said Sears. “You have to feel your way through it.”
Peruzzi finally found his way in the Breakers CIF opener against Don Lugo, when he went 3-4 with two runs scored, a triple, home run and five RBI to help Laguna win only its second post season game in school history. “Do you finally think you’re a Breaker?” Sears remembers asking Peruzzi after the game. “ ‘He said yeah, finally. I finally relaxed and started playing.’ That was the day he kind of broke out of his shell,” said Sears.
Since then, Peruzzi has become one of the most potent offensive threats on a team that bats a collective .375 and has out scored its opponents 220 to 73. His .482 average and 32 RBI are second to Paul’s .493 and 39, and the two are tied for team high in hits with 40.
Peruzzi is third in doubles (10) behind Jones (12) and Paul (11) and second in slugging percentage (.650) behind Paul (.827). All three are tied for triples with two.
Peruzzi says he doesn’t pay attention to the stats and is uncomfortable discussing his season-long success at the plate. “It might disrupt my play,” he said.
But the usually quite catcher welcomes the opportunity to talk about the importance of his role behind the plate. Like how he works to get a favorable call from an umpire on a borderline pitch. “If I catch them a certain way and work to stay underneath the pitch, I can get it as a strike,” he said, referring to a catcher’s technique called framing the pitch.
His more than a dozen years behind a facemask and chest protector began in little league, when, as Peruzzi recalls, “There were not a lot of kids who could catch. So I said, I’ll catch.”
Since then, he has learned the art of reception from a number of mentors, including his father, and, most notably, Brett Kay, his coach at J Serra and former minor league catcher in the New York Mets system. “He’s opened up to wanting to learn this game from everybody,” said Sears.
Sears and Breaker pitching coach Ben Julianel have continued to work with Peruzzi, letting him call the pitches, offering direction only when he looks to the dugout for help. “It’s your show,” they told Peruzzi. “We’ll just sit back and watch you play.”
As Laguna’s staff of talented hurlers adds to its record number of victories, Peruzzi’s ability to call the right pitch at the right time often goes unnoticed, at least by the average spectator. “The communication between the pitcher and catcher definitely helps the outcome of the game,” Peruzzi said.
But most who take the mound for the Breakers, especially sophomore starters Jackson Rees and Larry Stewart, appreciate what Peruzzi does for their games. “They trust him. They believe in him,” said Sears.
Peruzzi is confidant Laguna has the pitching and offense to make a run at a CIF title. It’s their defense that needs work. “I do think we need to clean up some of our fielding,” he said. “I think it’s mostly just mental. If we know we can [play good defense], we’ll be able to do it better than we have been.”
With more than 20 wins and a long overdue league title to their credit, the 2011 Breakers have exceeded everyone’s expectations, except those wearing the spikes and caps. “Goals were set, and we’re just knocking them off one at a time,” said Sears. “They realize what the final goal is.”