Head coach Juan Namnun’s Frankford Pioneers have reeled off seven straight wins to improve to 7–1 in the highly-entertaining Public League Division A. TIMES FILE PHOTO
With more games like the one his Frankford Pioneers played on Friday, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Juan Namnun have a full head of gray hairs by the time the postseason rolls around.
In baseball, a 9–0 lead is usually safe; in the Public League’s vaunted Division A, Friday became proof positive that no advantage — no matter how commanding — is secure. Frankford found that out the hard way, then lived to tell about it with a thrilling, albeit nerve-wracking rollercoaster of a victory.
Up nine after three innings, Frankford watched rival George Washington chip away with two runs in the fourth, five in the sixth and four more in the seventh, turning a 9–0 deficit into an 11–9 advantage. The reigning champs, without star first baseman Ish Bracy, had Frankford on the ropes … until Rudy Diaz struck. Diaz saved the day by belting a three-run walkoff home run in the home seventh, capping a wild, exhausting afternoon with a precious win in tow.
“I was nervous, but it was the biggest hit of my life,” Diaz said with the aid of Namnun as an interpreter. “I was just trying to put the ball in play, because that’s what we work on. I’m very excited right now. I feel great. It was a very difficult game, and it hopefully gives us a chance to go far.”
It was great for Diaz and his teammates, but Namnun, who has seen a lot in his day as a head coach, was breathing a giant sigh of relief. As a four-time league champion as head coach (and five more as an assistant), Namnun understands that no game is over until you get 21 outs, even if his kids are still learning that fact.
“I think the gray hairs started in the fourth, and then I got a couple more in the sixth,” Namnun said. “The next time you see me, it might be all over the place. Games like this, you walk away with the emotion that you lost; you take what happened and learn from those individual mistakes. For instance, we missed four signs today, which is unheard of for us. To hit a walkoff home run is great for them, but I’ll go home and treat it like a loss. You can’t allow a team with talent to hang around, because it will bite you.”
The 12–11 whirlwind was further proof that Division A is full of parity and pandemonium. Through Monday, Frankford sat at 7–1 in the division, tied for most wins with Central (7–4), who the Pioneers knocked off 7–2 on Tuesday. Frankford has won seven traight to position themselves for a division title chase, but there’s been little let up from the rest of the league. Olney and Prep Charter are both 6–2, while reigning Public League champion Washington is very much in the thick of it at 4–4. Heck, 2–8 GAMP knocked off Central on Monday, so it’s clear that all bets are off.
“This is the most parity we’ve ever had in the league, in my opinion,” Namnun said. “It’s what we need to put us on the map to college coaches, because there’s a lot of talent here. One through 13, it doesn’t matter who is playing who. Every game is very level and even-keeled to the point where you just don’t know who will win. There’s nothing better than that. For me, it tells me that once the playoffs get here, anyone could win any game to get to the next step. The atmosphere and tension have been my favorite parts of this season, and you can’t help but scoreboard watch because you just don’t know who’s going to win.”
Washington head coach Ken Geiser, a Public League baseball lifer himself, agreed with his counterpart.
“Being in a situation like that helps you learn how to win, as well as how important it is to make the basic baseball plays,” he said. “I think both teams learned something; we learned you’re never out of a game, and Frankford learned you have to put teams away because momentum can change that quickly. GAMP beating Central, who I think is an elite team, just shows you that anything can happen. It’s just crazy.”
In a sense, it doesn’t even matter which team enters the postseason’s first round on May 11 as division champions. Sure, it helps with seeding/positioning, but division standing means little beyond that. Last year, Washington finished second to Franklin Towne but upended the Coyotes in the title game; the year before, Frankford finished 5–8 in the division before ripping off an impressive winning streak all the way to a championship.
“We’ve got four games left, and we could go into the playoffs 8–4, 6–6 or 4–8,” Geiser said. “Who really knows? I certainly have no idea. It could be any one of the 13 teams. That’s why I’m trying to tell them we have to focus on us, not Central or Franklin Towne or Frankford. We’ll have our hands full regardless, so we have to be playing GW baseball. There are a lot of good baseball players out there, so let the chips fall where they may. It is exciting that it’s just around the corner.”
“You need challenges like that to keep you level and moving forward,” Namnun added. “The minute we think we’re ‘it’ and have done everything right, you need a game like this to ground you. It’s the wake-up call we’ve been missing. We’re fighting for first place, so we’ll learn from it.”
On Friday, Diaz was the hero. This week, it could be somebody else to deliver a big hit and crucial victory to his team. Frankford feels it’s up to the challenge, and the same can be said for Washington and the other 11 teams from Division A.
Nothing concrete can be predicted for the playoffs beyond making sure to expect the unexpected. If Friday was any indication, the best is still yet to come.
“Anyone that says they aren’t thinking about the playoffs, I’m not buying it,” Namnun said. “It’s going to be a super challenge for us, and today showed that every game brings with it a playoff atmosphere. We can’t forget what happened today, because we haven’t quite learned how to put a team away yet. I tell our boys to forget a team’s record and what place they’re in; whatever place you’re in, in this league, you can always win a ballgame.” ••
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