May 8, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
Usually it refers to a team overcoming an injury by plugging in a backup, as the players are supposed to be interchangeable parts, a la Eli Whitney’s innovative gunsmithing ideas in the early 19th century. Though it is not recorded that Mr. Whitney, he also of the fateful cotton gin invention in 1793, ever coined the phrase “Next Man Up,” and though it is for certain obviously that he knew not the hashtag, the idea is similar: Be ready to scramble and be versatile, make do during a crisis. Step up and be counted.
So it was that the SaberCats found themselves employing the mantra in bi-district as their manager, Jaime Perez, was sidelined by a slightly sudden surgery that kept him away from the beloved ballpark for the San Benito series. Instead of fixing gaps in player personnel, the Vela program had to do so at the top of the food chain, with its expert assistant staff taking command of the ship midweek and then guiding the club to a sweep of the Greyhounds. Saturday’s 5-1 victory inside a veritable microwave of sticky, molten heat, moves the Sabes on to area, where they will face the forever-formidable Laredo Alexander Bulldogs. More on that eternal nemesis down the road.
Junior Bobby Garcia, who scattered five hits on his way to win No. 8 for the season, said that not having Coach P on board was a challenge.
“Yeah, it was weird,” said the righthander, who finished with a flourish armed with a series of breaking balls that vanished before contact with the astonished Greyhound bats in the last three frames. “We are used to hearing his voice, all the time, that’s for sure. But when something bad happens, you just have to keep going.”
Catcher Rudy Gonzalez, bulwark for a team that is now 22-8 and headed into the second round of the playoffs for the seventh time running, noted that in such a case, leadership is key.
“We’ve had some great seniors in the past, like Mito last year, Izo, and Ramsey a few years back,” he said, referencing Perez, Lopez, and Amador, respectively, indeed all senior stars of banner note. “My senior year now and I have tried to step up in that role, be a role model for the younger guys, as well as helping the other seniors to be leaders, too.”
Along with fine pitching and captaincy all around the park, the Sabes also benefited from excellent plays afield Saturday, with a pair of double plays ending San Benny threats, in the second and fourth, this while the Sabes built a 5-0 lead with five runs in the first two innings.
“Getting a double play will really give you confidence,” said Garcia, who participated in both the twin-killings, 1-6-3, showing athleticism by bounding off the mound to help his own cause.
Gonzalez added that, conversely, it does not do wonders for the other side.
“When you do that, roll two, it hurts the other team,” he explained. “They are thinking they have a chance, that they’re gonna do something. And you take it away with the double play.”
With offense firing early, defense airtight for the most part, and Garcia dominating on the hill, all that was left was to solidify the pinnacle of the depth chart. Interim skipper Greg Garcia, who took the reins after Perez was sidelined midweek, noted that the Vela machine is built to withstand the occasional trauma.
“We have a good staff, we all communicate about everything, we’re on the same page,” he said. “The assistants are extensions of Coach Perez out here; we all have input.”
Coach Garcia lauded the efforts of his sophomore infielders, Jayden Martinez and A.J. Reyes, saying that fellow assistant Mike Salinas has done a great job of working with them this season.
“The San Benito coach told me he was impressed by those guys, thinking they must be seniors,” Garcia said. “The truth is, they’re not but they have been playing together for a long time, they’re best friends and that is a plus when it comes to playing in the same infield.”
Though the Sabes had a relative breeze on a breezeless swelter of a day, the first game had been considerably more fraught. Friday in Cameron County, Vela trailed into the sixth before rallying to a 5-3 victory as powerfully built Nolan Salinas continued to assault the ball and fellow senior David White twirled a complete game effort, fanning six, same as Bob Garcia Saturday.
But Garcia, the coach, is like Perez in many respects and here’s one: he is always on the lookout for weaknesses, lapses, and room for improvement.
“We got on them early, got some runs,” he commented after Saturday’s clincher. “But then we let up, let them hang around, and they regrouped; we knew San Benito would battle, they’re tough, always ready to play. This was a hot day, 100 degrees, and luckily our trainers, and the boosters, they had plenty of water and stuff for us. It was hot for both teams today.”
It was so UV fierce by 11 a.m. Saturday that one would not have blinked if they had seen either team come out in shorts, a la Bill Veeck’s 1976 Chicago White Sox, who wore the controversial mini-uniforms all season. That was also the year that future Hall of Famer Minnie Minoso cranked out a base hit for the club at age 50 (!) but that is beside the point.
Point is, it was nuclear real fast, fans and players alike soon drenched in sweat and working to avoid having the distressing weather become a distraction. Not easy. It was a dominant factor.
The pesky ‘Hounds led off with a single in the first frame, but Garcia was quick off the bump to glove a poor bunt attempt in the air; he then struck out the next hitter.
When they came to bat in the first, the Sabes put the memory of a slow Friday start behind them, striking for three runs. Two batters were plunked early on and Martinez slammed a ball into the gap that eluded a ‘Hound outfielder, 1-0 lead. With the players screaming “Rattled!” at the SB hurler who was surely that – he soon balked a runner over – and yelling “Escalera!” at the series of too-too high pitches they saw, the momentum was set. Salinas reached out and over to loft a bloop single to right for a 2-0 advantage and when San Benito turned a double play of its own, with no outs, the third Sabe run was plated.
Garcia held them well in the second and his mates came in to get two more runs then, as David Pena singled and first baseman Jesus Solis clouted a double down the right field line to drive him in. the burly Solis then overcame the odds with a deft steal of third base, and on the bases or in the field, “Zeus” was no mere mortal in the second game of bi-district. Vela stole three times early, got thrown out twice, but the action on the bases seemed to unnerve the ‘Hounds. A San Benito error led to the fifth run, and Vela was comfortably ahead, if starting to feel the effects of the weather.
Hitters eight- and nine-hole reached to lead off the Greyhound third, but Garcia set them down after that, wielding a disgusting slider and the occasional, disheartening change. Reyes made a nice between-hop pickup at short and tossed to pal Martinez at second for a force-out and the inning’s end.
In their attempt to extend the lead in the third, the Sabes failed to get a bunt down, something catcher Gonzalez said the team is working on, as it has been a minor issue for the past two seasons.
Of course, in the fourth Vela rebounded with a double play, and a good thing too, as the next San Benny hitter poked a home run over the wall in left-center; might have been a three-run dong, without the two-fer. Winning teams avoid those pitfalls. Make their own luck, so to say.
Still, Vela could not advance to a bigger advantage, as another botched bunt attempt ended in a double play. The coaches fussed at their kids now, telling the Sabes to make the routine plays, to not let San Benny hang around. If Coach P had been there, well, he would also have been steaming along with the blistering heat, one knows.
It was again defense that revamped the home mojo, as Reyes came racing across the middle of the diamond to glove on the run and fire to first, a play they practice all the time for a situation that seldom presents itself in the game. This sharp moment jumpstarted a very quick 1-2-3 inning as San Benito’s hurler was deep into the pitch count, Garcia barely halfway to the dreaded 110. Efficiency.
Thus far, Garcia had not been able to pitch from ahead in the count as much as he usually does, but slick fielders – including himself – were giving him plenty of pick-me-up. As the coaches warned the Sabes not to get complacent, the latter innings whizzed by, Garcia finding a serious groove now and Salinas ranging over to snag a hard-hit ball in the gap in right-center. In the seventh it was almost as if the kids had nothing left, as five of six outs recorded by Sabes and ‘Hounds came via strikeout.
By the time it was Trophy City, the players were fired up but sagging, and parents hugged the fence fiddling with their cams, looking similarly whipped by the hours of rays.
Now they have won 13 games in a row, have the Blue and Black, and it’s time to get serious. They are in the second round like clockwork, as routine as the between-innings, side-saddle leap over the fence and into the dugout that incoming left fielder Ethan Aguirre executes seven times a game.
Bouta get harder.
In ancient mythology, the goddess Nemesis enacts retribution and revenge for those who succumb to hubris or arrogance before the gods. The remorseless goddess led Narcissus to the pond after all and also created an egg yielding sets of twins, of which one gave life to the future Helen of Troy. And we know that one eventually turned out. Ten years of hell.
And for Valley baseball teams, perhaps the main nemesis through the years has been Laredo Alexander. Having the temerity to challenge this school has generally been a fool’s errand.
The Bulldogs have for some time been a regional juggernaut, winning 75 percent of their games from 2011-2019. More specifically, the program captured 30 series wins during that stretch, going to state in 2015, and beating ECISD clubs six times in the 9-year process. The mastery of locals began in 2013 when Alexander knocked North out in bi-district and continued in 2014 (EHS) and 2015 (North, in area). In 2017 the Bulldogs clipped the SaberCats, though they lost the first game and were forced to then win two, which they did. Then came 2019, when Alexander defeated the Cougars in area before dropping Vela in a three-game series.
Last season Alexander suffered an early exit for the first time in a decade as it lost to SA Stevens, but now the ‘Dogs threaten to pick up where they left off in 2019, with a 25-7 record after a bi-district sweep of SA Taft. The club went 10-2 in its league, splitting with United and Eagle Pass and has now run off 11 straight triumphs.
The winner of the Vela-Alexander collision will be in against either Stevens or La Joya in the third round. The Falcons, never a great baseball entry, went 16-0 in district this season and are a glittering 21-6 after topping Laredo Nixon to begin the playoffs. In 2021, they followed the upset over Alexander with a loss to the same La Joya bunch they now take on for area.
The Coyotes, a known quantity as a current 31-6A combatant, have gone 29-16 all told against ECISD programs the past 15 seasons, and have made 13 postseason appearances during that stretch, winning twice four times – including last season – and going 3-4 overall against Vela, all in non-playoff action. This season the Coyotes were 6-2 against Edinburg schools, splitting with Vela and North in the league.
Their 2021 performance ended a streak in which they had endured first-round exits five times in a row. Match that against three two-win postseasons (2007, 2008, and 2010) and the battle of pedigrees between them and Vela goes to the Sabes.
After two non-playoff years to begin their career as a program, the Sabes caught fire in 2015 and have stayed lit. They won twice in the Second Season of 2016, easing out of it with a loss to vaunted Calallen, and then went four-deep in 2018, beating Harlingen, Eagle Pass, and Los Fresnos before running into SA Churchill at the regional level. In 2019 the Sabes beat Harlingen South and McAllen High before the aforementioned loss to Alexander, and last season eclipsed San Benito and United South leading to a taut road loss at Los Fresnos in a one-shot, third-round clash.
Vela’s all-time winning percentage is 74 percent, commensurate with that of the Bulldogs over the last decade, which makes this series a potential monument to South Texas baseball excellence.
The regional quarters series of 2019 was one such, as Vela came close to establishing a program record for wins with 27, just two behind the 2018 bunch. The Sabes capped the first game, 5-0 behind eight K’s from righty Nico Rodriguez, who also went 2 for 4. Mito Perez banged out three hits that day.
In the second tilt, Vela led 2-0 early before the Bulldogs exploded for six runs in the second, and though the Sabes rallied behind two hits from Erik Martinez and two RBI from Rodriguez, they were bested, 8-6.
The clincher was classic baseball, Vela ahead 2-1 into the sixth before Alexander scratched out a pair of runs to win, 3-2, ending the series. The Valley side managed just two hits in the third match, infielder Izo Lopez hurling seven solid innings in a somewhat surprising starting mound assignment.