BALBOA PARK — As he concluded his warm-up pitches before the sixth inning on Monday, Lowell Cardinals senior Levi Humphrey cracked a smirk, and proceeded to throw a pitch he’s never thrown before in a game: A knuckleball.
Humphrey — who only throws a few varieties of fastball, without an off-speed pitch in his repertoire — reflexively laughed. He’d never try it in a game — he admits to having no workable off-speed stuff to speak of — but he was finally having some fun.
“I was feeling good, for sure,” Humphrey said. “I like throwing knuckles in practice, but nothing serious.”
After a tight first three innings that saw Humphrey throw 59 pitches, he had retired six of the last seven men he faced in short order. His 1-2-3 sixth paved the way for an eight-run seventh, as the Cardinals ran away with a 12-1 win over Balboa, their third win in a row to start Academic Athletic Association play.
Humphrey, one of just four seniors on a team laden with 10 sophomores, provided a steadying influence in his second start of the season, and his steadiness made up for early struggles, as the Cardinals (3-2, 3-0 in AAA) left nine men aboard in the first six innings.
“Levi’s our leader,” said head coach Daryl Semien. “He’s our bull on the mound. Once he locks in and hits the zone — he nibbled a little more than I would like today, instead of attacking guys — but at the end of the day, he’s going to be our leader, the guy we lean on.”
Along with Humphrey’s six strong innings — he finished with two strikeouts, two walks and four hits allowed on 86 pitches — the senior righty also went 3-for-5 at the plate, driving in one run while scoring another.
In a game marred by six combined errors, both Humphrey and his opposite number, left-hander Sean Mueller, had to work around a constant parade of baserunners, allowing six hits and two walks.
“We saw this left-handed pitcher last year, and he tied us up a little bit,” Semien said. “We made those adjustments. We did it a little bit later than I would like, but we talked about that in the beginning of the year, where guys are a little bit slower, lefties tail, and all that good stuff. He got us out in front, but we made the adjustment.”
The Cardinals first got on the board in the second, after a leadoff walk to junior Connor Vo and a sacrifice by sophomore Luke Clossen, senior Trey Chase dumped a two-out RBI single into right.
Humphrey then faced his most trying inning in the bottom of the second, a frame in which he’d throw 31 pitches. Humphrey began by allowing a leadoff double down the left field line to Kevin Mueller to lead things off, before a grounder by George Escabido to sophomore shortstop Philippe Astier allowed the lanky sophomore to erase Mueller on a diving tag. A balk moved Escabido to second, and a ground ball single through the left side by Balboa first baseman Trevor Britton put men at the corners.
Right fielder Yasin Shaikh blooped an RBI single to left, before Humphrey issued a six pitch walk to left fielder Paris Mankin-Wallace. Faced with the bases loaded and two outs, Humphrey got a key groundout to get out of the jam.
Lowell capitalized on the first of four Balboa errors in the top of the third, when Humphrey came up with a first-pitch RBI double to left center to put the Cardinals up 2-1.
Balboa managed to put men at first and third after a fielding error in the third, but Humphrey clutched up and won a nine-pitch battle with Britton, fanning him to end the inning, and the Buccaneers’ last real scoring opportunity.
“I was a little distracted by all the baserunners,” Humphrey said. “I got out of my groove. Just went back to working on the strike zone … [Britton] was fouling off a lot, and it was definitely taxing on me, for sure. Just working the zone, you know, really trying to get him to make a mistake, and he did.”
Humphrey threw just 28 pitches over his next three innings.
Three more errors — including two on one play to allow Closson to reach on a leadoff grounder to first — brought home a pair of Cardinal runs in the fourth, the second coming on a sacrifice fly from sophomore Jack Schonherr. It was the first of his team-high three RBIs on the day.
Balboa reliever Kyle Wong allowed the first three men in the seventh to reach, and was chased by an Astier RBI single to left. Reliever Kyle Tong then came on and promptly hit Jordy Bach, allowed a two-run single to left by Schonherr and a two-run double to right to junior Cameron Tang, his third hit on the day. Humphrey — headed to Humboldt State this fall as just a student — came up with his third hit — a single to left — to end Tong’s day.
Justin Herren came on to pitch next, and dealt a five-pitch walk to Vo and a four-pitch walk to Closson, bringing home another run. A two-out RBI single by Astier provided the final margin.
In all, the Cardinals sent 13 men to the plate in the eight-run seventh, rattling off six hits.
Four Lowell batters finished with multi-hit days, including Schonherr (3-for-4, 2 runs, SB, SAC, 3 RBIs), Tang (3-for-5, 2B, 2 RBIs), Astier (2-for-5, R, SAC, 2 RBIs) and Humphrey, who 3-for-5 with a double and an RBI.
“This team here is really young,” Semien said. “They’re good, and in the beginning of the year, there wasn’t too much deer-in-the-headlights. They were good on JVs last year, and they knew what they were up against this year. They’re not coming in scared.”