March 13, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
Worth the time spent Tuesday, watching EHS collide with North on the Cougar diamond, partly because the two teams put on a display of old-fashioned Rivalry ball, with plenty of highlights. But partly also due to the biannual clash of coaching brothers, Rick and Robert Valdez, a meeting of the hearts and minds always guaranteed to be replete with strategy, tactics, and other interesting tidbits.
The two siblings and their guys went back and forth in a key 31-6A game, Rick of North gaining the upper hand early on, Robert of EHS taking the tape with a 6-2 victory. The Cougars, now 2-4 in district, fought and fought, with Valdez the Younger coaxing them on with his frenetic pace and enthusiasm. In the end, Robert was able to exert his charges with the usual brand of tough love motivation, as indicated by the key stretch of the night.
After North had taken an early lead with a double from Alian Palacios and a run-scoring single from Jacob Paez, EHS tied it up in the third with a leadoff single from Manny Cantu followed by a series of wild pitches and passed balls.
After four it was knotted at 1, with North’s coach imploring his group to stay focused. Meanwhile, EHS’s mentor gathered his nine around before it went up to hit.
“Say a stray dog is in your yard,” he told the Bobcats. “If you feed that dog, what’s going to happen? It’s going to hang around.”
The ancient tale was not lost on the ‘Cats. What Valdez was saying threw some life into them, and of course one knows that the veteran coach was not denigrating his brother or the Coogs with the retelling. He simply wanted the Original Cats to go out and put some distance between them and the opponent. This was the time.
Again, the pesky Cantu led off by reaching base, this time on a walk. Eventually, he scored on an errant pickoff throw to first and after junior IF Dylan Garza singled, up stepped program leader Jorge Salinas. In right field for the night, with senior Adan Adame behind the plate, Salinas cracked a prodigious triple into the gap in left-center to plate two runs as the perennial Bobcat cry of “Rip it, Rope it!” paid dividends. Next, strapping junior Darren Barrera smashed one to right field and when the fielder couldn’t handle the smoke, Salinas ran home for a 5-1 lead.
Salinas was to add another RBI triple, in the seventh, and starting pitcher Arturo Martinez finished up a 6-2 victory with his 10th strikeout to cap the seventh. EHS improved to 5-2 in district with the decision, and the guys definitely responded when their manager asked for it.
“When he told us that story, I knew he was trying to help us get it going,” four-year star Salinas said of Valdez’ pre-hit talk. “We had to stay calm, and coach, well, he’s been around, he’s seen it all. We needed to do better, base by base, do our job, and he helped us calm down and do it.”
STARTING THE JOURNEY
They are handing out bracelets at North these days, after one has passed the forehead zap test, and during this week of Spring Break (psych!) it made sense. Filing into the park made one remember the salad days on the Island, cruising down into the foggy morass to catch a show from Stevie Ray Vaughan, or maybe even Joe King Carrasco. Holla for the memory … if you have it …
Anyway, it was bound to be prime theater with the Bros. Valdez in the house and North’s sib was off and running with the first pitch. Rooting on his starter, Andy Carranza, Valdez mixed health protocol in with Baseball Speak.
“Got to score some runs,” he told his kids after they got out of a first-inning jam. “And keep those masks up!”
The Coogs came to bat and with two outs, Palacios and Paez did their thing for the lead.
“Let’s go, hurry out,” the coach told his band. “Set the tempo!”
Some coaches motivate with presence, others with pepper, and some mix both. Rick Valdez is the sort, he is constantly on the move, even when standing still, and the Coogs react well to his ministrations.
In the second, North’s Adam Castro blasted one to center for a loud out and Martinez fanned two in the frame. He is part of the Bobcat batch of big men, which includes Salinas, Barrera, and J.C. Soto; together they look like a set of linebackers. North beef is with Paez and Carlos Acosta, but the latter was unable to compete Tuesday; he’ll be back for next game.
As stated, EHS tied it up in the third while Martinez was in the midst of a dominant streak that would see him retire 13 of 14 Coogs. North Bro strode the length of the dugout in the fourth, telling a pitcher who was going to throw in the bullpen, “If you’re warm, match him pitch for pitch.”
It’s a baseball family and each brother takes pride in deep knowledge of and experience in the game. Watching them work is like vid’n a How-To reel. If they don’t know it, it cannot be grasped.
At this stage North was into one of its favorite cheers, the ol’ “Here we … go!” followed by clapping at the proper intervals. Don’t think that softball is the only diamond sport where the noise is rhythmic and the cadence intoxicating.
As his Coogs played the field, Valdez hollered out, “Hey, two down … who wants it!?” Not quite as hard as the barking commands across the field, but still quite enough to help the North nine bear down and concentrate.
Came the fifth and the big EHS rally, and after the game, the winning manager discussed his tack and its results.
“Art was in command for the most part, he minimized his walks, attacked the zone,” said Valdez the Elder. “And us getting those runs in the fifth, it gave him some breathing room. It’s a lot easier to pitch with a lead, it makes a big difference. In this district, you go as you pitch, pitching is key, it’s like the SEC of Rio Grande Valley baseball, tough teams almost every night.”
North was slightly rattled by the Bobcat explosion but battled onward. In fact, the war was joined in earnest. First sacker Barrera hustled over to the third base dugout and when realizing it was out of play, slid hard and popped up to his feet.
“Hey, we got a slider out there,” Valdez cracked to his player. “Don’t worry, we’ll wash it up … put some Fabuloso on that uniform.”
When second baseman Garza ranged out to short right to snag a pop, the manager, definitely feeling the moment, broke off another good one, an inside joke referring to the play resembling one the team had worked on in practice recently.
“Well what do you know, just like the tennis ball drill!” he said, and when the inning ended, he sprinted out to the third base coaching box, eschewing the usual slow amble he generally applies.
North was down but not out, and in the sixth freshman second baseman Jovan Bernal showed it. The quick little newcomer alertly backed up a ball hit to Paez at first, and when it skipped past his teammate was able to scoop it and head to first for the oddity of a 3-4-U putout. This Bernal is a keeper.
Valdez of North was not through with his machinations, and in the North half of the sixth inserted pinch hitter Mario Morales, who singled and then yielded to Bernal, the guy he had hit for, who is a speedier runner. By then Carranza had moved to the outfield from the mound with freshman Miguel Martinez coming on to pitch. North uses its depth well as Valdez attempts to season the group as fast as he can.
“We do have a lot of young guys this year,” he said. “Last year was tough for us because we had a lot of kids, sophomores and juniors, who didn’t get all the innings because of the pandemic. Still, it’s a good group and we have been close in so many games, the one big inning has not been kind to us. I would not use the term “rebuilding,” because this is a great program used to being in the playoffs. We’ll get there. We’re getting experience and games like this will really help.”
As EHS batted in the seventh, the ENHS kids showed they were still fired up. Little details help discern the character of a program, and junior Gil Hinojosa illustrated the North brand when he sprinted from third base in chase of a high pop which eventually went out of the field of action. Winners hustle, every time.
Then the seventh with North down four but threatening after hits from Martinez and senior Jorge Oyervidez. With two outs, Martinez of EHS registered his final whiff, closing the books.
Another fine test of brothers and their teams. The Bobcats are right in the thick of the race with a game left to close the first half, while North has shown the ability at times to join the hunt.
“That’s a scrappy team over there,” Robert Valdez said, jerking a thumb in the direction of the North side. “They fight every game, they fought tonight, and believe me, I am not saying that because of my brother. It’s the truth. You can tell the way they play, the values they have, the work ethic. They fought us and we were able to come out on top. The defense did well all around, Adan behind the plate was great. All we do is put kids in a position to succeed, really. Rick and I both believe in that.”
Valdez the Elder was correct in his assessment. The ‘Cats played error-free ball while the Coogs did not, and wild pitches/passed balls also betrayed North somewhat. The bats produced six hits, while EHS got eight, marginal debit there.
And the EHS skipper is also right about the beliefs he and his brother bring to the field, and practice ground, day after day. They love the game and more vitally, they respect it, with this end result: the kids buy in, trust the words of constructive criticism, and take pride in wearing their uniforms. Who knows whether these clubs will be standing when the postseason arrives, but one can safely say that EHS and North are learning the ins and outs of baseball, plus healthy life lessons along the road.
Bravo, bravo, Brothers. And exceedingly good show, Coogs and ‘Cats.