South Bronx HS pitcher Justin Almonte. Photo: Josh Eisenberg

Phoenix on brink of undefeated season

For the Phoenix of South Bronx High School, the pressure was officially on. To keep their undefeated 12-0 season going, they’d have to score in the last rays of spring light.

In just his second start, junior Justin Almonte struck out 3, walked 5 and gave up a run in South Bronx H.S.’s 4-3 win, to keep the team’s winning streak alive.

Over the course of one Thursday afternoon, the sky over the Merrill Lynch Field of Dreams in Mott Haven had gone cold and overcast, dropping 20 degrees since the warm-up drills. The players were in the dugout wearing hoodies to keep themselves warm. The opposing pitcher from Holcombe L. Rucker Campus in Longwood had thrown a gem, allowing three runs in seven innings. The game was now tied in extra innings, the bottom of the eighth; the score was 3-3. The umpire had informed both coaches that due to the lack of light on the field, this would be the last half inning of the game.

For the Phoenix of South Bronx High School, the pressure was officially on. To keep their undefeated 12-0 season going, they’d have to score in the last rays of spring light. But Head Coach Frank Colon wasn’t worried.

“This team knows how to hit,” said Colon adding, “these guys can straight-out destroy the ball.”

The Phoenix, who were shoved into a rebuilding stage the past couple years, are back on top in PSAL division A. The division is the lowest in the PSAL athletic league for high school sports, but judging by the team’s talent this season, they don’t belong there. Last year the team went .500 going 8-8, but this year’s team is on track to follow in the footsteps of the 2012 team, when Colon’s crew went 21-0.

In last week’s game, that last inning wrapped up as so many have for the Phoenix this year – with the win. There was one out, and the South Bronx’s Felix Fernandez was on third base reached with a walk and two steals. Up came the biggest player on the team, the catcher, Joel Batista, a 6’3” senior. The count: two balls and two strikes. The next pitch makes contact with the wood bat. Batista hits an infield pop fly, the ball blending into the white sky over the shortstop’s head. The Rucker player calls for the catch but he hears footsteps from all around him and loses sight of the ball. He drops it. Colon, who is standing at the third base coach position, sends the runner home. The umpire makes the call: safe at first and safe at home and the Phoenix undefeated season safe once more.

Earlier in the day Colon was scrambling to find positions for everyone because it was their fourth game that week. Pitching arms were becoming scarce and injuries were surfacing as well. In fact, the starting pitcher for that game, junior Justin Almonte, had only started once before.

“I’m nervous, but I’m way less nervous than last time. I don’t want to be that guy,” said Almonte before the game. Almonte only gave up four hits in his first outing against Rucker in five innings, and is now enjoying the ride on an undefeated team. “Last year I was on the JV team and we lost most of the games, so this feels great.”

It’s been not just a banner year for the players but also individuals on the team. For instance Batista is leading the PSAL in wins as a pitcher and is batting .645 in addition to playing catcher.

“He’s like Miguel Cabrera,” Colon said. “When he goes, the team goes with him.”

Batista is also being scouted by MLB teams according to his coach, and is ending his high school career with this remarkable season. If they go undefeated, he said, “It will feel like everything I ever wanted.”

Colon is no stranger to winning teams. He has been the coach of the men’s baseball team for nearly 40 years at South Bronx High School, since the school opened. Tthis school field should be named after me, just saying,” Colon joked with a smile.

But kidding aside, Colon knows baseball. He was once a talent scout for the Yankees. It’s clear the kids respect him and have a great rapport with him. All in all, he’s about playing ball and having fun.

“Sometimes he gets outta hand,” said Almonte, “but it’s always fun.”

The last time the team went this far, the school presented the players with rings. Colon is counting on some more jewelry this month.

“I already petitioned the school in the off chance that we do it again.” Colon said with confidence.

The last game of the regular season is scheduled for May 16 at 4 p.m. on the South Bronx High School fields.