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Vikings emerge victorious with help from left-handed Bright

Billy Bright offers the rarest of commodities in a high school pitcher: He is a pitcher rather than just a thrower.

The distinction might not make sense to those outside baseball circles, but to La Jolla High School Coach Gary Frank, there is a significant difference between the two, and Bright, a Vikings junior, is most definitely in the former category.

“Most of your high school pitchers might have really good stuff but don’t know when is the right time to hit certain spots,” Frank said. “Billy’s just got a knack for that, where he’s just got some baseball smarts on the mound. He knows when to take a little bit off (his pitches) and when to put a little more on, and he just hits his spots and does a really nice job.”

Coach Franks puts him in more of the Greg Maddux mold than the Randy Johnson mold, but from the left side.

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“He’s very good at changing speeds,” Frank said, “he’s very good at locating the ball, and he can throw all three of his pitches - fastball, curveball and changeup - for strikes and keep them down in the zone. That’s really been the key to his success.”

It might be a bit premature to compare the La Jolla left-hander to Maddux, a 300-game winner who is currently in his 21st major-league season, but Frank’s point is well taken. Bright pitches with an intelligent approach rarely seen in young pitchers, whether it’s at the high school level, in college or in the low minor leagues.

And he has the numbers to show for it. Entering the week of May 15, Bright was 4-4 with a 2.12 earned-run average as the Vikings’ top pitcher this season. Perhaps most important, he had helped spark a turnaround that saw La Jolla rebound from a forgettable 2005 baseball season to one in which the Vikings expect to see some postseason action.

La Jolla entered the final week of the 2006 season with a 3-8 record in Western League play, but had a 12-13 overall mark and a realistic chance of making the CIF-San Diego Section playoffs. The Vikings were scheduled to conclude their regular season with a May 17 home game against Point Loma, their longtime conference rival.

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The Vikings’ season represented a significant turnaround from last year, when they went 6-19-1 overall and 2-10 in Western League games. They missed the postseason entirely, losing 17 of their final 19 games and at one point enduring a horrific 13-game losing streak that extended over a nearly five-week span.

Bright posted good numbers on that team, but didn’t pitch enough to be a significant factor. He went 1-1 with a 1.46 earned-run average and struck out nine batters with just one walk, but was on the mound for just 14 1/3 innings and three starts. He batted .325 with five extra-base hits and five runs batted in, but did it in a season that saw him get only 40 official at-bats in 20 games, about half the number most regulars posted.

Much of the Vikings’ struggles could be attributed to the absence of Bright on the mound. The team got off to a solid start, winning four of its first seven games, but in a late March game against Francis Parker, Bright came off the mound complaining of shoulder pain and was shut down for the season.

“We went from 4-2-1 to 6-19-1 in a hurry,” Frank recalled.

When Bright isn’t pitching, he plays center field and bats third for the Vikings, and he has posted good offensive numbers. A switch hitter, he is among the team leaders in most key offensive categories and does it just as well from the left side of the plate as he does from the right side. He hits .367 from the left side and .364 from the right side.

He has played solid defense at a key position as well.

“He gets a great jump on the ball in the outfield. He’s not the fastest guy on our team, but he gets himself in position, makes great reads and gets himself in the right spots,” Frank said. “He makes up for not having as much speed as other guys by just anticipating where the ball’s going.”

Bright is 5 feet, 10 inches tall and weighs about 160 pounds, not great size for a pitching prospect. But Frank believes the junior is at his best on the mound and knows that the abilities he has already shown as a pitcher could take him far.

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“I think in the future, in terms of college and possibly past that, I think pitching is where he’s best,” Frank said. “He is left-handed, and left-handers who can move the ball and change speeds are at a premium in baseball. He can definitely do that.”