The exquisite performance of the 2019 Ventura County Pirates’ pitching staff transcends its numbers. It has dominated Sunset Baseball League hitters even though five of its pitchers did not pitch a single competitive inning in the 2018-2019 academic year.
Before May 2019 Josh Howitt, Jason Starrels, Shohei Umeki, Jason Whaley, and Eric Crouse hadn’t pitched competitively since last summer at the earliest, yet they’ve bolstered the Pirates with a 12-4 combined record this season.
“Those guys are the unsung hero of our team this summer without question,” Pirates general manager George Vranau said. “I have no idea where we would be without those five guys.”
Between them, the fabulous five have a 3.58 ERA in 168.1 innings pitched with nine quality starts. They also have two saves courtesy of one each from Umeki and Howitt.
“Hopefully [colleges] will look at the numbers these players gathered this summer while pitching for us and realize that ‘hey, maybe we need to take a closer look at some of these guys’,” Vranau said.
Colleges have begun to take notice. Howitt became the Pirates’ first D1 commit of the summer in early July when he announced he will be playing for the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos in 2019-2020.
Howitt, however, is not alone in having a valuable skillset. Each member of the fabulous five possesses individualized strengths on the mound.
Jason Starrels pitches effectively in any inning and provides long relief. He threw three scoreless innings in his last outing helping the Pirates advance to the SBL Finals. Starrels credits Vranau and Pirates’ pitching coach Rick Moreno for helping him perform at a high level after his time away from competitive baseball.
“They both have been phenomenal,” Starrels said. “Rick has helped me with pitches and giving me ideas on what pitches to throw and [Vranau] is helping me with the right mindset and mentality on getting guys out.”
Another one of the five pitchers, Umeki, specializes in getting guys out. He leads the team with 40 innings pitched and 40 strikeouts. The freshman righty owns an unrivaled 40-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a deceptive windup, and fearless command of the zone.
Umeki is a freshman at Glendale City College which is where Whaley last played an academic season in spring 2018. Whaley’s four wins this summer are the most amongst the group of five. He credits his time away from baseball with helping him develop a starter’s mentality.
“I was kinda getting beat up by baseball but coming back this summer made me a lot stronger for sure,” Whaley said.
Whaley also credits his work ethic for his success, a trait that he shares with Crouse. Crouse pounds the zone with a heavy fastball which he mixes with breaking pitches that dive away from barrels. His powerful yet intellectual approach to pitching has produced a 2.36 ERA, the lowest amongst the fabulous five.
All five of these pitchers have unique attributes which have contributed to the dominance the Pirates have imposed upon the SBL this season, yet they share the quality of being undervalued. The fabulous five designation is not just a silly allusion to a Hollywood blockbuster, for as Vranau said, the group is truly comprised of the heroes of the Ventura County Pirates.
Ventura County faces the Solana Beach Redbirds in game 1 of the SBL Finals 7 p.m. Saturday at Cal State Fullerton.