March 5, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for game photos

A bit of an anomaly at EHS on baseball Friday night, as the opposing hurlers warmed up in the same bullpen, side by side, barely socially distanced at about six feet apart. And the contrast in styles was interesting as well. The Bobcats tossed junior lefty J.R. Soto against Vela, and he is a burly chap who throws a ton of slick off-speed pitches. His counterpart was SaberCat senior A.J. Sotelo, who has shed some football muscle these days in preparation for his college mound chores to come. And though he was about 10 pounds lighter than when he quarterbacked Vela most recently, Sotelo was to come on and spray gas at EHS from the get-go.

Soto and the Bobcats, who had started out with three 31-6A wins in a row, hung tough against the defending district champs, but one bad inning did them in. That and a 1-hitter (eight K’s) from the devastating and efficient Sotelo, who needed just 76 pitches to lift his team to a 7-0 victory and give it a 3-1 league mark, same as EHS now.

Aside from surrendering a 4-run fifth, Coach Robert Valdez’ Bobcats were credible in most aspects of the game, and reaching the dominant Sotelo Friday was not going to happen, as Adan Adame was the only EHS kid to get a base hit, a line drive single in the third. With a quality group of veterans but a whole lot of underclassmen playing prominent roles, EHS has to do one cardinal thing in order to be successful.

“We have to learn how to win,” Valdez noted. “When you get that, it is contagious, and it keeps going. We’ve done it here in the past and hopefully this club will get there before long. They’re making strides, but tonight our inexperience was exposed somewhat. They’re moving along, these guys but we have a lot of youngsters who need more experience in big games. That’s what it’s all about.”

His number in the opposite dugout, Jaime Perez of Vela, knows the feeling, and his program has become one of the Valley’s best over the last five seasons. Though the SaberCats suffered a loss to La Joya early on, they have beaten Pharr North and Edinburg North, and put it together well to dispatch the ‘Cats on the road.

“We’ve got some guys who have been around, who know what we expect,” Perez said. “Take Mito behind the plate, a four-year guy, like a coach on the field for us. We’ve got A.J., a college commit, and Rudy, signed with UTRGV already, so there are guys who we can count on.”

Mito Perez, the versatile star, is set to play at Tarleton next season while Rudy Gonzalez leads a stable of five outfielders.

“See, we have competition at practice, such as those outfielders,” Perez commented. “Without tournaments and non-district games, well, we had some scrimmages, we’re having to get into district earlier than ever. So having experienced guys helps. We also have some program players, guys we expect to make the routine plays, do their job … everyone pitches in.”

As for his righty Sotelo, Perez said that the senior was on point against EHS.

“When you pound the zone like he did, you’re in for a good night, a fast night,” he said, and truly, the game went smoothly with few errors on either side, a brisk night of performance from the city kids.

Vela got off to a good start with a run in the first, as sophomore smacker Jake Dufner clobbered an RBI single to score Perez. The Sabes appeared to score a second run on a wild pitch but the ball had actually hit a batter (Sotelo), which sent the runners back from whence they had come, and EHS escaped. In the fourth, Sotelo doubled with one out and then Jestin Gomez, the speedy outfielder, singled in run No. 2. To that stage Soto had battled well, fooling Vela with changes and curves and nibbling away at the plate with fastballs, getting first-pitch strikes and staying out of real trouble.

In the fifth, though, the Sabes broke through for four runs on just two hits with a pair of walks, an infield error and another RBI from Gomez. Shortstop Carlos Pena, who had two hits Friday, also had a run-scoring knock in the rally.

Soto then yielded to freshman Andel Saenz, who threw to three batters before being replaced by righty Darren Barrera, the No. 1 hurler once again for the ‘Cats. Valdez said that Saenz has a load of potential.

“Right there, we wanted that kid to see what it’s like to pitch at this level,” he explained. “It didn’t matter the result, it’s the fact that the kid got his feet wet, the experience will help him down the road. And help us.”

Vela, which faces a stern test Tuesday at P-SJ-A, scratched out another run in the seventh, and Sotelo just kept mowing them down, reaching as high as 90/91 on the gun and sitting pretty at 87-89 throughout. He also had a filthy slider going and was, as they say, well-nigh unhittable.

“That guy who got the hit for them, I just told him, hey, nice piece, good hit,” said the multi-sporter headed for Incarnate Word in San Antonio after graduation. “They have a scrappy team, they played well, hats off to them.”

Sotelo said he felt the positive vibes Friday, because he had done what he always does.

“I was locked in hours before, followed my routine, it’s all on a schedule,” said the flame-thrower. “They were swinging at the first pitch a lot, that helped us get some quick innings, kept my pitch-count low.”

Though he is excited about the opportunity to get to the next level, Sotelo is dead set on having a banner senior campaign for his school.

“I look at it this way, yes, totally ready for college ball, but this is my last ride with these dudes,” he said. “I have been playing with some of them for years, since middle school and, really, before that. So I want us to give it our all, see what we can accomplish this season.”

And don’t think the three-year standout at QB – he threw for more than 6,500 yards with 72 touchdowns – has forgotten all about the pigskin.

“Yeah, it’s kind of like, I was very used to it, the lifting, the training,” he laughed. “It feels weird to know that I am not in football anymore, I was so used to it. My lifting is different now, I have dropped 10 pounds, focusing more on leg strength these days. Doing that makes me better on the mound, I’m not as muscular as I was in football, and that means I am more flexible, more fluid as a pitcher. It all works out in the end.”

All in all, a good preview of what promises to be a fine baseball season. Vela will no doubt have a hand in the way things turn out, in part thanks to Sotelo, but also owing to a bevy of talent. First sacker Matt Perez is a proven banger, OF Ivan Mendoza a superb athlete with clutch chops, and a third senior, Diego Cortez, is having a nice year so far; he tore over from second base twice against EHS to run down difficult tweener pops. EHS has the makings of a competitive club as well, especially with the hard-charging Valdez using every night as a teaching moment for some of his talented but callow youths. Long-time starters such as catcher Jorge Salinas and infielder Manny Cantu – along with productive Art Martinez in the outfield – are not going to go lightly into the night, and with Barrera and Soto, the mound situation looks formidable. Keep an eye on some of the new faces, including infield sophs Ben Gonzalez and Dylan Garza, plus freshman outfielder Leo Kalifa. The ‘Cats get Pharr North and La Joya next, a key March 16 bout with Edinburg North looming on the horizon.

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