March 25, 2022 (updated)
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
It was a wild night at EHS in many ways, including twin lights-out delays and the ongoing demolition of the adjacent football field, with tractors churning the green into dirt for now. Aside from those oddities, though, it was a taut and tense affair that one has come to expect when the baseball Bobcats and Cougars get together.
Of 31 previous meetings dating back to 2007, 16 had been decided by three runs or less, eight by a single run, so Tuesday was no surprise.
The homestanding ‘Cats pushed their district record to 3-4 and dropped the Cougars to 1-4, but not before having to rally from a 4-2 deficit with three runs in the sixth inning to win, 5-4.
With hard-chunking righthander Darren Barrera on the mound for the Red and Blue, Coach Toby Gonzalez had to like his team’s chances of ending a 4-game losing skid, and when the senior belted a two-run double in the first frame, the ‘Cats were off to a good start.
But they squandered some scoring opportunities in subsequent innings while Coach Rick Valdez’s Cougars – who would only manage two hits off Barrera in six innings – scratched and clawed like a team desperate to grab a Dub. North manufactured single runs in the second and third and then in the fourth went ahead, stealing two bases, taking advantage of a wild pitch, and benefiting from a pair of EHS errors to do so. With Valdez firing them up and stoking their will to compete, the Coogs climbed on top and the spirit and noise in the dugout were outstanding. “Inspirational,” in fact.
In the end, though, EHS came up with the big inning, smacking four hits in the sixth to push across a trio of runs to cap the comeback, the win being saved in the seventh by some sweet curve-balling from sophomore pitcher Andel Saenz, who came on when Barrera had reached the pitch count limit.
Gonzalez was satisfied with what he saw.
“We came through with some timely hitting, and that’s something we have been stressing,’ said the first-year manager, who coached against his EHS predecessor’s brother Tuesday. “And we got the bottom of the lineup coming through, again, something we have wanted from the guys, production one through nine. That’s what happens when we let a team hang around, they make it interesting!”
The lights first went bye-bye in the third inning, necessitating a 20-minute delay. Later in the night they pooped out once more, and at about that time, the Coogs had started to get with the program.
“We came out flat after all that, the lights going out,” Gonzalez admitted. “And North was ready to play. We could have shut down when they went ahead of us, but we responded. And that’s good for all the young guys we have, to be in that situation and respond. Due to what’s gone on the last few years, many of our players are really in their first full season. Now they know why we tell them, ‘It ain’t over till it’s over.’”
The football field is going to have turf soon enough, as will all the district fields on campus. And each of these baseball teams is likewise a work in progress. Valdez noted that despite his team’s record coming in, the Coogs have been fighting all the way through.
“It’s been more mental coaching this year than in past seasons,” he said. “We’re trying to get our guys back to competing. Little things make a difference, we’ve been in a lot of close games, and we want the kids to compete.”
Valdez relayed an anecdote he’s used for this purpose.
“If you get behind, say, 5-0, and your guys still run fast back onto the field ready to fight and play, what does that tell the other team?” he said. “And if you get behind like that, but you jog out there all slow, what does that tell the opponent? Our guys have started to understand the message. They say, ‘Coach, we hadn’t thought about it like that.’”
And against EHS, the Coogs definitely showed they are paying attention to their high-octane coach, refusing to quit, hustling all the way through, and filling the night air with chants and cries, behind or ahead.
At first, it was behind, after Barrera, smacking a cool .538 for the year, nailed a double. Junior Leo Reyes had bunted for a hit after a leadoff walk by senior Brandon Torres. After Barrera’s hit, North starter Andy Carranza got out of the jam with no more damage.
In the North second, sophomore Miguel Martinez went the other way for a base hit to right to start, got to second on an error on the play, and advanced to third with a groundout from senior Jaime Gonzalez before sailing home via a wild pitch. The Coogs average less than four runs per game and hit just .267 as a team; they have to find creative ways to get home.
EHS came back in its half of the second, loading the bases with one out, but Valdez’ kids pulled off a super stopper, as sophomore shortstop Jovan Bernal fielded a bouncing ball up the middle, phantomed the bag as he passed over, and fired to first to end the threat with a double play.
By then, Carranza had yielded to ace senior Gilbert Hinojosa, who had been scheduled to start Friday against P-SJ-A. But North realized that this game was of vital importance, so on came the smooth Hinojosa, who has compiled a glittering 0.62 ERA in 34 innings. By the way, the Bernal double play came with the dangerous Barrera prowling on deck.
In the third, the Coogs tied it up after a pair of walks to start the frame – from their No. 8 and No. 9 hitters – leavened by a passed ball and a sacrifice fly by sophomore center fielder Armani Acevedo. Saenz in left uncorked a tremendous throw from left field on the fly ball, but the run scored just ahead of it to make it 2-2.
When Barrera started the EHS third with a windblown double, it looked like the Bobcats were on their way to retaking the advantage. But again, North turned two to stop the bleeding as junior second baseman Andrew Calderon flipped to Bernal, who made a sharp turn and toss for the twin-killing.
BOOM-BOOM, OUT GO THE …
At this point the field was suddenly bathed with moonlight, and it took some time to get the situation under control. North came to bat in the fourth with renewed energy, as Gonzalez reached on an error, Calderon executed the sacrifice bunt, and Carranza drove home a run with a single, later stealing two bases and coming in to score himself.
Meanwhile, Hinojosa was mowing them down well, spotting his pitches nicely and showing an elusive breaking ball. The ‘Cats went down 1-2-3 on the fourth, aided by a great stab of a low and hard shot at first by Martinez, who made the putout. Barrera silenced the Coogs in the fifth, producing two strikeouts – he has 62 now in 35 innings.
EHS hit the ball hard in its fifth at-bat, but Acevedo ran one down in center to retire Torres and then did the same on a long blast from Barrera, who got two of the team’s nine hits. The other two kids who netted two safeties would figure prominently in the ensuing comeback. That fifth was peril time for Valdez’ nine as Ben Gonzalez bounced a single to center after the two flyouts. But the speedy footballer was nipped at second on a steal attempt, by catcher Jose Palacios, a very important peg, there, to end the inning.
After Barrera fanned another pair of Coogs in the sixth, EHS came up for the telltale bottom half. To lead off, Saenz lofted a fly to right which dropped in for a double after the outfielder stumbled. Of the eight light stanchions at the park, the pole down that foul line was the only one that refused to come back on, and the coaches decided to play it out.
Anyway, junior Joaquin Soto from the seven hole delivered a bloop single for an RBI to make it 4-3 and soon ninth hitter Jacob Garcia came up with a two-out single to right field to tie the game. See what Gonzalez meant about balance in the order?
Torres then smote a solid single to bring the go-ahead run roaring across home plate in the person of Garcia, and it would take another comeback if the Old Gold was to post its second 31-6A triumph. In previous league attempts, it had lost to Mission just 1-0 and led Pharr North before fading down the stretch.
But Saenz was sharp with the bender, slipping his slow curveball past the Cougars and getting an alert catch of a looping liner at third base from Torres. The end came with a final strikeout, as Saenz’ dancing hook of a pitch eluded the North swinging bat. Victory was assured.
Some of the Bobcats are wearing a shirt bearing a slogan this season. “Accountability, Blue Collar Commitment.” And the team showed its hard-working colors Tuesday, falling behind after a fast start, withstanding a ferocious rush from the Cougars, and finishing the deal with everyone contributing, 1 through 9 and all over the field.
With the bye set for Friday, Gonzalez and Co. will wait to see how North fares that night against undefeated P-SJ-A, surely the favorite to win it all this season, and then take its shot at the Bears, Tuesday. After that are bouts against Juarez-Lincoln and Econ, which means EHS could be 5-5 heading into the stretch run.
They have now beaten the Cougars 16 times since 2007, and to show how competitive the bash really is, North has also captured 16 contests. The Coogs had won eight in a row against the ‘Cats before EHS swept them last season.
North, which last made the playoffs in 2018, has struggled to keep up since then, going 8-27 in district. But Valdez’ crew showed pride and energy against the bitter foe Tuesday and will definitely look to get back in the groove during the second half of 31-6A action.