Sondheimer: Admiring high school pitching greatness over six decades

Seeing junior right-hander Seth Hernandez of Corona dominate on the mound while throwing 97-mph fastballs and 72-mph breaking balls for strikes got me thinking: Who are the best high school pitchers I’ve seen in six decades covering high school sports in the Southland?

The memories have come flooding back:

Bret Saberhagen, Cleveland. There’s been no more special moment than seeing Saberhagen throw the only no-hitter in City Section championship game history at Dodger Stadium in 1982 when he retired 21 of 22 batters and beat Palisades and future NBA coach Steve Kerr.

Saberhagen was an exceptional athlete, also playing shortstop and moonlighting as a basketball player. What convinced me of his future success was his ability to throw strikes whenever he needed to. He was drafted in the 19th round by the Kansas City Royals, won two Cy Young Awards and was MVP of the 1985 World Series at 21 years old. He threw a no-hitter in 1991 and played for 18 years.

Jack McDowell, Sherman Oaks Notre Dame. He was the best player on the best team to never win a CIF title. In 1984, nobody was beating McDowell when he was pitching. The team won its first 27 games until losing in the Division 1 semifinals when McDowell didn’t pitch. His competitiveness was something else and continued at Stanford, then the major leagues, where he won the 1993 American League Cy Young Award with the Chicago White Sox.

He was a top athlete who used to play quarterback. His interaction with umpires was always memorable. He threw hard and knew how to pitch. If you wanted someone to come through under pressure, McDowell would be the best choice.

Rod Beck, Grant. He didn’t look like an elite pitcher physically but there have been few warriors like Beck. He was the winning pitcher in all four City Section playoff games in 1986, culminating in the championship game at Dodger Stadium. He was always down to earth, mentally tough and just wanted to pitch.

He was drafted in the 13th round in 1986 by the Oakland Athletics and went on to be a three-time All-Star as a relief pitcher in 13 years as a major leaguer. He died in 2007 when he was 38.

Jeff Suppan, Crespi. My main requirement in deciding whether someone is a good high school pitcher always has been the ability to throw strikes. Suppan was a strike machine at Crespi. His velocity eventually reached the low 90s, and he led the Celts to the Division 1 semifinals his senior year in 1993. Like the senior year McDowell played, Suppan didn’t pitch in the semifinals and Crespi was eliminated.

Suppan also could hit and was a surprise contributor at the plate in the majors. He was chosen by the Boston Red Sox in the second round of the 1993 draft (turned down UCLA) and became the National League Championship Series MVP in 2006.

Gerrit Cole, Orange Lutheran. A 97-mph fastball that was electrifying. That was Cole in high school. I remember dropping by Orange Lutheran to speak with him in 2008, and he was one of the nicest, most knowledgeable teenagers you could imagine. The fact he turned down millions as a first-round draft choice to attend UCLA for three years showed the trust he had in Bruins coach John Savage and in his own abilities.

As the years passed and he matured physically and mentally, the sky was the limit. He won the AL Cy Young award last year and is a six-time All-Star.

Jon Garland, Granada Hills Kennedy. He was selected with the 10th pick of the 1997 draft by the Chicago Cubs as a 17-year-old. He was raised by a single mother and respected everyone. He was pitching in the majors by age 21 and was a World Series champion and All-Star in 2005 with the White Sox.

At Kennedy, he threw strikes and thrived under pressure. He was on City championship teams in 1995 and 1996. In 1997, he pitched against Sean Douglass of Antelope Valley in an outing that drew dozens of scouts to Pierce College. He had a 93-mph fastball and devastating slider.

Max Fried, Harvard-Westlake. When it comes to curveballs, few have been more impressive than the one that came out of the left hand of Fried. He was the star pitcher at Montclair Prep until the school decided to close, allowing him to spend his senior year at Harvard-Westlake in 2012, where future major leaguers Lucas Giolito and Jack Flaherty were his teammates.

Fried said he tried to mimic the curveball of his favorite player, Sandy Koufax. His intelligence and athleticism (he also briefly played basketball and football) made him able to handle many challenges on the field, from hitting to fielding. He was drafted as the seventh pick overall by the San Diego Padres, underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014, was traded to the Atlanta Braves and became one of the best pitchers in the National League. He won a Gold Glove in 2020.

Trevor Bauer, Hart. He was the most unorthodox, exceptional high school pitcher I’ve ever seen. He threw strikes like few others. His practice sessions throwing long toss or firing the ball from beyond the mound as hard as he could to loosen up left onlookers thinking, “What’s that?” He went 12-0 on the mound as a junior at Hart. No one was better.

He was a straight-A student and so smart that he became bored in high school and decided to skip his senior year in 2008 and enroll at UCLA. He told me, “I like to push myself, and I felt moving on would be a better way to present a new challenge and help myself to keep advancing mentally and physically and as a person.”

He was the national pitcher of the year in 2011 at UCLA and taken No. 3 overall by the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was an All-Star in 2018 and won the NL Cy Young with the Cincinnati Reds in 2020. He’s got a career record of 83-69 while waiting to see if a team will let him return after off-the-field issues.

Tyler Matzek, Capistrano Valley. The Times’ 2004 player of the year turned in one of most memorable playoff performances ever. He wanted to bring a championship to his team. He didn’t worry about how many innings he pitched or how it would affect his pro chances. He didn’t allow any runs in 18 1/3 playoff innings while emerging as the winning pitcher in four of five games.

In the Southern Section Division 1 championship game at Angel Stadium, a 1-0 victory over Edison, he got his team out of a bases-loaded situation in the top of the sixth inning, then hit a home run in the bottom of the inning. In the seventh, Edison loaded the bases with one out and Matzek struck out the next two batters. He won 13 games his senior year and had eight home runs.

He was the 11th overall pick by the Colorado Rockies in 2009. He became a big leaguer in 2014 but then struggled with the “yips.” He came back as a reliever for the Braves and became their World Series hero in 2021.

There have been so many elite pitchers through the years. Flaherty was magnificent his junior year at Harvard-Westlake in 2013, winning 1-0 at Dodger Stadium in the Southern Section Division 1 final while going 13-0 with an 0.63 ERA.

In 1993 and 1994, left-hander Randy Wolf was unbeatable during the City Section playoffs in leading El Camino Real to consecutive titles. He went on to be an All-Star in 2003 while playing for 17 pro seasons.

Roger Salkeld of Saugus was striking out so many batters in 1989 that pro scouts couldn’t get enough. He was drafted third overall by the Seattle Mariners.

Griffin Canning of Santa Margarita pitched his team to the Southern Section Division 1 championship in 2014 before starring at UCLA and then playing with the Angels.

Hunter Greene of Sherman Oaks Notre Dame was hitting triple digits with his fastball in high school. Taken No. 2 overall by the Reds in 2017, he’s settling in as a major leaguer.

So thank you to Hernandez for bringing back memories of pitching greatness. It’s going to be fun watching him take his place among the Southland’s best.

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