Inexperienced but talented, Wolves have Grand plans

In 15 seasons under Melvin Martinez, Grand Street Campus has made the playoffs 13 times. That includes six division titles and one PSAL Class A semifinal berth.

Much of that success was built on the depth of the program and reliance on veterans.

It was also about adapting.

After watching his underclassmen excel this fall, Martinez went in a different direction. Instead of waiting for them to develop on JV, he brought them up to the varsity.

“I changed it up,” he said.

The result is an inexperienced, though talented, starting lineup that includes freshmen rightfielder Samuel Mendoza and centerfielder Williams Jerez. There is closer/shortstop Jose Cuas, third baseman Ernesto Lopez and second baseman Donovon Richardson, all of them sophomores. On the 25-man roster, there are five freshmen and nine sophomores – better than half.

“We’re gonna be good for three years,” said Martinez, who considers the 6-foot-3 Jerez, 6-foot-2 Cuas and Lopez pro prospects. “I’m excited about that.”

The present is pretty bright, too. While the youngsters may very well define the Wolves’ season, senior right-hander/first baseman Jose Zuniga will be the team’s linchpin, a hard-thrower who won seven games a year ago while striking out 59 in 42 innings pitched. Martinez thinks Zuniga is the best pitcher in the city, pointing to him out-dueling Francis Lewis ace Jonathan Bobea last year when he no-hit the Patriots.

“Nobody [in the PSAL] has a curveball and changeup like him,” Martinez said.

Junior Luis Hiraldo, who was 3-0 a season ago with a 0.81 ERA, is right behind him. A hard-throwing left-hander, Hiraldo can miss bats but is also adept at locating to both sides of the plate. Sophomore Willy Santana and freshman Jason Aponte will battle it out for the third spot. Nicknamed Goose, after the Hall-of-Fame closer with the herky-jerky delivery, Cuas, a hard-throwing right-hander who gets his fastball into the high 80s, will handle closing duties.

The Wolves enjoyed their sixth division crown in eight years, but again fell flat in the playoffs. The problem in a 4-3, second-round loss to James Madison was a lack of offensive firepower. That hasn’t been a problem yet this spring, with Grand Street showing an ability to rally and lace line drives to all fields.

“It puts the pitchers in a more comfortable position,” Zuniga said. “If I let the other team score two runs, I don’t think we’re gonna lose.”

Much of that is the youngsters. Lopez, who had two hits in a recent scrimmage with defending champion Norman Thomas, has batted third this season, with Jerez behind him in the cleanup spot. The one issue is experience. In big spots, Martinez said, the underclassmen look to hit home runs, instead of working the count or going the opposite way.

“As far as talent, they have it,” he said.

Zuniga hasn’t just been impressed by their ability. He likes their makeup, too. They have yet to be intimated by varsity baseball

“They’re tough,” he said. “These young kids are really strong. We have a lot of confidence in them.”