May 16, 2021
By Greg Selber
Onward through the baseball bracket, with a berth in the Sweet 16 on the radar. And in the third round, the SaberCats will face an RGV foe, one with whom they share some recent history. If Vela is to advance to the regional semis for the second time in its annals, it will have to do so by surmounting the same obstacle that stood in the way of the fabled 2018 Blue and Black crew: Los Fresnos.
Surely one has not forgotten that memorable season – when Vela won a record 29 times – and that unparalleled series with the Falcons, a three-game drama ending with the Sabes moving on. That was the team that hit 28 homers, stole 82 bases, and had a team batting average of .366. The ’18 edition was a mashing machine with 81 doubles and 16 triples, starring such luminaries as Eric Martinez, Ramsey Amador, Nico Rodriguez, and Aaron Galvan. One of the greatest Valley teams ever. Mark Esquivel and Adam Alviso combined for 15 wins against two losses, Rodriguez and Galvan added 11 more mound victories, and all told, the staff combined for a whopping 301 K’s in 209 IP.
Having beaten Harlingen and Eagle Pass following a 13-1 district title ride – blemished only by a district-opening loss to North, 10-9 (candidate for Game of the Year, recall) – Vela went into the third round against the Falcons in 2018 and produced a series for the ages.
In Game One the Sabes were up 4-2 until Los Fresnos rallied to win, 5-4, despite a home run by Martinez. The next bout saw the enemy strike for four runs in the first, only to see the Sabes – down 5-2 after five – explode for seven mighty tallies in the sixth to cruise to a 12-7 decision. Unlikely heroes Angel Salinas and Joey Recio (three hits each) paced the win, along with the amazing Amador, who tripled and homered for four RBI. The clincher was taut and thrilling with Amador driving in two, Yuli Torrellas (!) getting a pair of base hits, and Rodriguez coming on in relief to pitch 5 1/3 innings and fan nine for the 4-3 prize.
Though the Sabes then expired against SA Churchill in the Rare Air, the season was sublime all the way.
Now the 2021 bunch has a chance to punch a ticket to the Big Boy Round, after a bi-district win over San Benito and then an area sweep of Laredo United South. Now 21-4 on the season, the Sabes showed in area that they can succeed in various ways.
Game One saw the club rally with two outs in the seventh against the Panthers out in Roma, scoring twice for a 4-3 victory in which sophomore Bobby Garcia and trusty senior Ivan Mendoza drove in key runs. Carlos Pena, the ace of the staff, struck out nine in a 4-hit outing.
The next night, Coach Jaime Perez’ squad dispensed with the suspense early on, scoring six in the first three innings to clinch its 11th series victory in program history. Freshman Jayden Martinez and sophomore Jake Dufner were the hurlers on the job for that one, with the latter whiffing six Panthers in his four innings of toil.
Los Fresnos, at 21-6, meanwhile has beaten P-SJ-A (3-0 in a one-game bi-district clash) and SA Brennan (5-3 and 2-1), to reach the third stage for the third time in its history. Interestingly, the Falcons have played all four ECISD teams in the playoffs, losing to EHS back in 2008, beating Econ in 2017, and topping North in bi-district 2018 before losing to Vela in the aforementioned mega-series. The Falcs have advanced past bi-district four times in a row, excluding 2020, when there was no playoff tournament, and come into the latest shot at glory with a very solid group.
They went 11-3 in District 32-6A, dropping an early slugfest with San Benito, 13-7 and getting swept by league champ Harlingen. The aggregate batting mark is .312 with 7.6 runs per game, the team ERA is 2.89 and here is the warning bell for Vela. While Los Fresnos does not have a star arm in 2021, it does have incredible depth on the mound. No fewer than three kids have been consistent starters, and out of nowhere senior Victor Loa, who had thrown only eight frames all season, went the distance in the team’s Game Two win over Brennan, spinning a 4-hitter in a 2-1 victory and plating a run with a triple.
Some flying Falcons: senior OF-P Germain Castillo is 4-1 on the mound and has driven in 29 runs, stolen 16 bags, and hit .414. SS-P Aaron Moore (2.19 ERA, five wins, .346) and soph 3B Joshua Munoz (.411, 22 RBI) are a fine left side of the infield, with Jacob Sandoval (catcher/first base) smacking .414. At the plate, the Falcons have drawn 149 walks against 138 strikeouts, but the pitching staff is prone to wildness, having yielded 106 walks so far in 27 games.
Los Fresnos was down 3-0 in the sixth against Brennan in Game One but managed a 5-3 win late, while in the second match against the Bears it led 2-0 until a seventh inning scare, taking a 2-1 decision to advance to meet Vela.
The Sabes will go to war with an attack that hits .335 collectively with eight runs per game, and sporting an ERA of 2.45. They can count on fecund bats from Mito Perez (.521, 31 RBI, 20 steals), Rudy Gonzalez (.432, 27 RBI), and Diego Cortez (.362, 21 RBI), while Matt Perez (.333, 22 RBI) has been on a hot streak with a .500 clip in the playoffs so far, and junior David Pena (.312) has been excellent at third base. Mendoza (.327, 11 steals) is a veteran presence in the outfield, a winner who makes big plays.
Pena (7-0, 0.64 ERA) has been a tonic when he was needed most, and also has contributed at the dish with 16 RBI and a .324 batting mark. With the absence of senior pitcher A.J. Sotelo due to injury, Pena has arguably been the most valuable Sabe in 2021, and he has gotten assistance from freshman Martinez (4-0, 2.74), Dufner (18 K’s in 12 IP, 1.20 ERA) and Garcia.
For the Sabes to keep the Magical Mystery Tour going, they need to get balanced offense up and down the lineup and hope that their refurbished mound rotation – despite its youth after No. 1 Pena – can continue to give the club a chance to win.
Some major league heavyweights loom on the horizon, as Lake Travis (32-4, ranked No. 1 in the state in one poll) will tangle with a 29-win Round Rock crew for the right to get to the Sweet 16, opposite the Vela-Los Fresnos victor.
The only other Valley 6A still alive in the bracket is La Joya, which copped the 31-6A prize, Vela second, this season. The pitching-rich Coyotes (21-2) will take on upstart Eagle Pass (18-9) in the third round, after the Eagles knocked out 32-6A champ Harlingen in area. The winner of La Joya-Eagle Pass will face off with either SA Reagan (34-4, ranked second in state) or Smithson Valley (30-2).