May 4, 2022

By Greg Selber

There cannot be a hotter team in the Valley as the baseball playoffs arrive, that much must be asserted forthwith. Because the SaberCats head into a bi-district series with San Benito having finished the District 31-6A schedule with 11 straight wins, outscoring their opponents 117 to 27 during that stretch for a strong second-place showing behind champ P-SJ-A. That streak would now be 12 overall, actually, given Monday’s 13-1 walloping of Roma in a warmup game, on a day which produced win No. 20 for Vela and illustrates many of the facets that make the club a fair bet to get past the Greyhounds and on to area.

Senior Nolan Salinas has been on fire lately, as witnessed by a 3-for-4 day against Roma with a double, a triple, and four RBI. He also pitched three innings against the Gladiators and struck out five without yielding a single hit. Salinas, one of eight starters hitting better than .300 for a club that has a fine .332 team average, had been paramount in the Sabes’ final victory of the league season, over Mission April 25. He slugged a home run against the Eagles and went 3 for 5 as Vela scored twice in the eighth to seal a 6-4 extra-inning Dub on the road.

Rangy Bobby Garcia had two hits against Roma, also tossing four scoreless innings in relief, and his performance on the hill has been exemplary in 2022. Garcia is 7-0 with a miniscule ERA of 0.40, as he’s adeptly filled the gap made by the graduation of Carlos Pena, last year’s No. 1 starter. As a staff, the Sabes boast a tight 2.40 ERA, with the only palpable weakness seen in the propensity to allow bases on balls, 93 as opposed to 135 strikeouts.

Now the program prepares to make its seventh postseason trip in a row, discounting the playoff-less year of 2020, and as stated, is on a real roll. After a 2-3 loop start – the three losses came by a total of just four runs – Coach Jaime Perez’ bunch has been superb, probably the best team in the Valley over the past two months. Now the Sabes turn their attention to San Benito, a club they know well after having beaten the ‘Hounds in bi-district last season.

The third-place entry from 32-6A went 9-5 in league action and is 17-9 heading into the postseason. While never considered a diamond power, this club has some bangers and live arms, and rebounded from a 0-2 beginning in the Lower Valley league to win five in a row and get into contention. They ended the season with a split against second seed Weslaco and carry commensurate numbers in comparison to Vela, with a 2.50 team ERA and a .310 aggregate batting clip.

Armando Hernandez is hitting .443 with 10 doubles and eight stolen bases, while Andre Mercado has a .387 average with six wins on the mound; second hurler Nicholas Garza has fanned 59 hitters over 56 innings, and reliever Nate Garcia has posted four saves. Stocky infielder Mauricio Padilla is a veteran who leads the team with 32 RBI while sophomore first baseman Tomas Flores has swatted .420 with 21 RBI. Game, gritty team.

The Greyhounds have been semi-regular foes for ECISD programs, as in their four most recent playoff appearances they faced the locals three times. This includes a victory over EHS in 2012’s first round and subsequent bi-district losses to the Bobcats in 2015 and SaberCats in 2021. San Benito also knocked off Econ in bi-district back in 2003, for a note of ancient history.

The Vela team that will attempt a successful run in the playoffs has proven smart at the dish, with 142 walks against 136 strikeouts, and shown ample speed on the bases with 81 steals. Four Sabes have at least 10 steals, with David Pena (14) and Justin Navarro (13) always ready to take off.

Salinas checks in at .392 with 27 RBI while lefty stick Ryan Botello (26 RBI, 21 walks) has been a steady force all season. Senior Rudy Gonzalez (.358, 24 RBI) is a trusted leader while newcomers Jayden Martinez (.410 to lead the squad, 30 runs) and A.J. Reyes (32 runs, 20 walks, 13 steals) have been outstanding. Joining Garcia among the prominent pitchers is David White (7-2, 2.52, 47 K’s).

In six playoff ventures since the school opened, the Sabes have won 11 playoff games, a pair of league titles, and made numerous forays into the bracket. The best came in 2018, when Perez led his group to three postseason victories, and the team also won twice in 2016, 2019, and 2021. Last season Vela beat San Benito in three – losing the second game – and then defeated Laredo United South before being eliminated by Los Fresnos, 2-1 in a taut third-round, single-shot bout on the road.

Should they knock off the Greyhounds for a second successive season, the Sabes would advance to area to face the winner of the bi-district series matching SA Taft (14-12) and 30-6A king Laredo Alexander (22-7). Expect Alexander, says the straight dope.

The Blue and Black represent the city’s only hope for glory beyond the regular season, as none of the other baseball hopefuls were able to make the stern grade in a testy 31-6A field this season. The series begins Friday in San Benito with Game Two set at Vela for an early 11 a.m. start Saturday. If there is to be a deciding tilt, it would tentatively come Monday night back in Cameron County, oddly.

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