Feb. 23, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
OK, here we go … a couple of scrimmages and then … district? Chihuahuas.
Yep, that is the drill this baseball season, for obvious and tiresome reasons that do not bear repeating, but Econ and North were ready as ready will be Tuesday for the 31-6A opener out east.
Basically, any baseball is good baseball and for teams that won a combined five times in 23 tries during the aborted campaign of 2020, getting started – even without preparation that usually comes through about a dozen non-district bouts – was an opportunity to start the road to redemption.
North had competed in two scrimmages, the Jags three coming in, meaning that one would expect to see a few timing errors and miscues. For an extremely technical sport dependent on repetition and gradual learning over weeks, not having the time off, well, we said it already.
Rick Valdez of North and Rigo Sanchez of Econ tossed their green and unpracticed clubs out there Tuesday and the result was a contest that was at times uneven, execution-wise, but did not lack for competitive fire. The Cougars blasted to four runs in the first and two in the second, while Econ scratched out single tallies in its first to at-bats. North led 7-2 after four and looked to be cruising until the Jags rallied to close the gap to two at 7-5 heading into the seventh. Valdez’ group closed out the win, 8-5, and both nines have reasons to be happy about the kickoff innings of the season.
The preseason appear to show La Joya, Vela, and P-SJ-A – all in the local media’s Top 10 – as the probable frontrunners in the Upper Valley loop, although less than nothing is written in proverbial stone right now. The Jags and Coogs are intent on driving their way through to contention, and certainly EHS is not going to hesitate to attack the rest of the field.
If the Coogs are to compete for a playoff spot, it will be with some impressive young arms girding a rebuilt rotation. Starter Alian Palacios, a lean righthander, started for North and shows considerable potential. Before leaving the lineup the sophomore also contributed a two-run single at the plate. His relief came from burly freshman Miguel Martinez, a hard-throwing sort from the right side who allowed five hits the rest of the way and picked two runners off base.
And this might have been the difference in the game, baserunning. Econ picked up six hits and drew 10 walks, so there was no shortage of possible run-makers on the sacks. But the Orange was guilty of no fewer than five boo-boos on the bases, and this cost the home side momentum and chances to score more than the five runs it got.
For the opening game, Sanchez used three pitchers, starting with J.P. Eureste, who was rusty and left late in the first inning, though he did rebound to knock out two base hits for the night. Sophomore David Gonzalez then came on in relief, to be followed by senior Manny Benavidez, the program’s leading light these days. Benavidez went five innings and gave just four hits, after the Coogs had managed five in the first two frames. He struck out six, including the side in the sixth, giving his club a necessary boost to stay in the hunt.
Both rivals played without key components, the Coogs minus veteran Jacob Paez, who was still in basketball, and the Jags without productive infielder Julio Vega. Several members of the teams have experience, several do not, which is the way it generally goes. Carlos Acosta, the fearsome first baseman, is one of the Coogs’ most seasoned guys, though infielder Jorge Oyervidez and outfielder Mikey Contreras have starting chops from the past. Catcher Adam Castro has always been defensively sound, and Tuesday he threw out two runners, one at first and one at second.
The new faces include freshman Jovan Bernal, an infielder who drew four walks against the Jags and ran down a difficult pop in short right field in the fifth. Outfielder Andy Carranza banged out hits and drove home a pair of runs while Mario Morales, a stocky senior, singled twice in the victory and made a sensational diving outfield grab.
As for the Jags, leadoff man Benavidez collected two walks and absolutely crushed a drive to left field in the seventh that fell to a fielder at the last minute. Sophomore catcher Andrew Luna walked twice, singled, threw out two North baserunners, looks like a real positive find behind the plate. At first, Sanchez has Noah Montano, a sturdy swinger who plated a run in the first with a sacrifice fly, and infielder Dalys Hernandez, just in from basketball, made some plays against North.
The Orange is also employing another multi-sport kid in muscular Nathan Garcia, the football QB who doubles as an outfielder, and one of his OF mates, Jose Luna, brought the club to within two runs in the sixth when he clouted a prodigious drive over the head of the outfield and produced a run-scoring triple; after thinking of coming all the way home, he initially went back to third, but a miscue in the North relay process allowed Luna to chug home with the run.
At that stage it was 7-5, advantage to the Jags as their fans had started brewing the chants pretty salty in the fifth, the energy seeming to surge onto the home side of the diamond. But in the North seventh, the visitor punched out an insurance tally on a single from Gilbert Hinojosa.
After Benavidez smashed his almost to start the last half of the seventh, Andrew Luna and Eureste reached with base hits, and the Jags had the tying run at the plate for two straight at-bats. They did not complete what would have been a stirring comeback but showed the sort of moxie and fight that Sanchez will no doubt be able to build upon as the league seasons gets cranking.
NOTES: Vela started off with a gem, getting eight runs in the first inning Tuesday at home en route to a 10-4 rout of Pharr North. Seniors A.J. Sotelo (11 strikeouts, two RBI) and Mito Perez (four RBI) led the parade, while senior infielder Diego Cortez went 3 for 4 for the SaberCats.
EHS also got eight in its opener, in the second inning of an 11-1 pounding of Juarez-Lincoln, as Manny Cantu drove home three and J.R. Soto hurled a solid five innings for the decision.
The next action comes Saturday as Vela travels to La Joya, Econ is at EHS, and North hosts Mission, all games beginning at 6 p.m.