Coming off back-to-back league championships—including its third A-league title since joining the Blossom Valley Athletic League in the 2007 season—the Live Oak High baseball team is poised to once again contend for a Mount Hamilton Division championship and make a playoff run.
Coach Matt Brotherton said the team is still solid offensively but not nearly as deep or potent as in years’ past—and the scores have reflected that—but the pitching is deep and capable of shutting down any lineup they face if they’re on.
The Acorns entered the week 3-3 after a 4-0 loss to St. Ignatius on March 4, a game in which they mustered only four hits. In three losses, Live Oak is averaging 2.5 runs per game. In its three wins, the team is averaging seven runs per game.
“Our offense might struggle a little bit this year, but we may not have to score many runs which is a nice problem to have,” said Brotherton, who is in his seventh season as the Live Oak skipper.
Led by Stanford-signee Aidan Keenan and UCLA-signee Landon Stump, Live Oak’s overall pitching talent and depth could be at or just a tad below any team in the West Catholic Athletic League. Keenan and Stump, of course, are right-handed flamethrowers who clock 90-plus mph fastballs and have sharp-breaking sliders to keep hitters off-balance.
But the Acorns are far from a two-man show. They’ve also got other pitchers who are plenty capable and can be dominant at times, including Sullivan Elliott, JJ Becks, Ryan Roberts, Caleb Elam and Bennett Nishikawa.
And if Michael Volkman is able to return in the final week of March, he’s another arm who will greatly enhance the pitching corps. Stump had nine strikeouts and allowed just two hits in four innings in a 6-1 win over Carlmont on March 3.
“He was dominant,” Brotherton said. “At the high school level, if you’re throwing 90 mph with command and a slider for strikes, you’re pretty much unhittable. That’s as good as command on his secondary pitches I’ve seen from him.”
In their senior seasons and final go-around in high school, Keenan and Stump have been mainstays in the lineup as well. They each have a home run but the greatest revelation has been Keenan’s dynamic play at shortstop when he’s not pitching.
“He’s the best shortstop I’ve seen since I’ve been involved with Live Oak baseball,” Brotherton said. “It’s kind of not close. His arm is freaking incredible. He’s making plays that big league shortstops can’t make because his arm is so good. In the grass, in the hole, just hosing guys.
“It’s crazy. He hasn’t played infield in three years probably and we throw him out there at shortstop and he’s throwing toward the [first base] bag with so much momentum it’s like a cannon. It’s pretty cool to watch him play short. He’s got crazy range and the plays he makes at times are unbelievable.”
Unbelievable would be one way of describing Diego Castellanos’ 2022 season. The senior center fielder/first baseman/pitcher won BVAL Mount Hamilton Division MVP honors after a massively productive season, and so far opposing teams have put Live Oak on notice that they’re not going to let the St. Mary’s-signee beat them.
“With the year Diggy had last year, he’s not getting anything to hit so far,” Brotherton said. “And that will probably be the case the whole year. They’re making sure that guy doesn’t beat them.”
Castellanos bats third in the order and cleanup hitter Ethan Lopez has been producing some key hits “when we need them,” Brotherton said. Lopez is currently hitting .471 with six RBI in six games and is doing another terrific job behind the dish as a returning catcher.
The Acorns have plenty of experience at the top of the lineup with the Nos. 1 and 2 hitters in outfielder Dominic Pereira and third baseman/shortstop Mateo Torres, who are both three-year starters. Castellanos and Lopez have been hitting third and fourth followed by Stump, who plays first base or right field when he’s not pitching, Keenan, and Spencer Westfield—the only freshman to make the varsity squad.
Right fielder Colby Allen, second baseman Teo Castellanos and Becks also figure to make an impact either with the bat, defensively, or both. Brandon Behl has appeared in two games and Nicholas Ruiz is also on the 16-player roster.
Outside of the SI contest, the Live Oak batters have shown great plate discipline, striking out just 15 times in the other five games. In contrast to professional baseball which has entered an era of home runs or nothing, in the high school game, there’s still value in making contact in other ways besides the long ball.
“If you put the ball in play with two strikes, good things happen,” Brotherton said. “It doesn’t always have to be over someone’s heads. There’s real value in not striking out.”
Live Oak is coming off one of its best seasons in its storied baseball history. The Acorns had mighty St. Francis on the ropes in the Division I playoff quarterfinals, carrying a 4-0 lead into the later innings behind the arm of Stump, who was working a no-hitter until he had to be lifted due to the mandatory high school pitch count rule.
The Lancers rallied to win 5-4 and went on to capture the championship before advancing all the way to the CIF NorCal playoff title game, where it lost an extra inning heartbreaker to De La Salle. New year, new team, but Live Oak is aiming to add to its recent success.
Brotherton said if they can play like they did against Carlmont—an A league team out of the Peninsula Athletic League’s Bay Division—a special season is probable.
“They played their best game of the year for sure,” he said. “They were really tight today, played like every coach would want them to play. Did some situational execution on offense, moving guys over, scoring runs without hits. That kind of stuff wins you a lot of games over the course of a season.”