May 22, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
Never a very happy errand, this, putting the finishing touches on a season after an excruciating playoff loss. But it must be done, for clarity and dignity’s sake, all the while realizing, frankly, that there is always the chance to sift through the leavings for positives as well as drawbacks. Even though right now the SaberCats are down in the mouth, and rightfully so, after (somewhat) surprisingly being eliminated in the regional quarterfinals by La Joya, they will eventually understand how rare a season they have put together, and eventually be able to staunch the emotional bleeding caused by having come very close to making more history.
Their three-game defeat at the hands of a pesky, opportunistic and finally victorious Coyote club meant that the Sabes will not repeat their exploits of 2018 and enter the regional semis. The EHS juggernaut of 2015 also achieved the feat of going four-deep, and there is the case of the 1956 Bobcats, who went whipping into the regional round as well, but back when a school did not face as arduous a task in doing so, fewer wins being then needed to advance.
Aside from that, in history, six other ECISD schools have advanced to the third round and dropped out, and despite a terrific 2022 run that saw them almost tie the program record for consecutive wins (17, set in 2018), the Sabes are the sixth. They are also the third, fourth, and fifth by the way, meaning that as far as baseball success goes, the Blue and Black has plenty to be proud of in its 10-year diamond life.
But still, La Joya, and it was a maddening series in many ways. One can point to a series of factors that factored in the series, to help explain why the favorite to advance – Vela finished ahead of the Coyotes in 31-6A and were far and away the second top team in the league, with P-SJ-A – did not do so.
The first has to do with arms. Having hitched and pitched their two horses in the first two games, losing the first 9-2 at UTRGV but coming back to win the second 9-5 at P-SJ-A Southwest, the Sabes found themselves hurling by committee Saturday, back at the University. And it did not work out.
Meanwhile, La Joya was also down to its third starter in burly, bushy haired third baseman J.R. Ramos, and against the tide, he came up with a truly exemplary effort to help his nine into the Rare Air of the playoffs.
And yet, it was as said an odd, odd thing. The box score from Saturday’s clincher is one for the books, as La Joya managed to plate 10 runs on only five hits, while Vela cranked out eight safeties which led to just three tallies. Running four pitchers out there, including three in rapid succession as the game slipped inexorably away, the Sabes gave up eight walks and squandered a handful of great defensive plays in leaving the bracket.
Starter Aleck Castro, who had notched a complete game effort in a district loss to La Joya in March and then had a prominent hand in the victory over the Coyotes during round two, kept the Sabes close Saturday with his sidewinding mysteries from the hill, but as he exited the game in the fourth, the momentum had already begun to depart for Vela. La Joya struck for three runs in that frame to go up 5-2 and added five more in the sixth to cruise onward to an almost impossible fourth round draw with vaunted Lake Travis.
After taking a 2-0 lead in the second, the Sabes did not cross the plate again until the sixth, when the cows were long gone, the barn door resolutely closed. So they end 25-10, with a bunch of excellent ballplayers due back for another run in 2023. The number of wins ranks third in Vela annals behind the 2018 bunch (29 triumphs) and the 2019 crew (27).
La Joya got the clutch pitching performance when it was most vital to do so. And the Coyotes also enjoyed a rich vein of luck, which is something any team will need in the upper reaches of the postseason. In Game One it was the lines, as the Redclads stroked no fewer than four base hits down a foul line, their offerings staying fair, barely, each time.
After the Sabes girded up to win Game Two, the finale before a sizeable crowd at the Vaquero home park saw La Joya plink and plunk the ball around, sending a dying quail here, an infield dribbler there, and as stated, turning a paltry total of five hits into twice as many runs.
Having allowed just 3.1 runs per game in 2022 through 32 games, the Sabes surrendered 24 in three tilts with a hot opponent.
Not that this recounting of fortuitous bounces of the ball is meant to gainsay the accomplishments of the bunch from eastern Hidalgo County. Won fair and square. Just say that the Coyotes got – and made the most of – some very timely breaks.
The recent formula for success in Vela’s case: big innings of offense, had carried the Sabes past first San Benito and then Laredo Alexander. In the first match against the Bulldogs, the club got four in the third to go ahead, and then clinched the series in Game Two with an 8-run fifth, after having trailed 3-2.
Later, in Game Two against the Coyotes, they worked for three runs in the third and four in the seventh to put the win to bed. Back on April 5, in district, the Sabes had screamed in for three seventh inning runs to come back and beat La Joya, on the road. Thus, a fine pattern of well-timed fireworks had seen off many worthy foes in the recent past.
The anticipated explosion was not forthcoming Saturday, however, and La Joya won the day as Vela continued a penchant for allowing free passes. Sabe pitchers yielded 123 walks in 35 games this season, striking out 170, and against Alexander in area, the starters had surrendered 13 bases on balls, foreshadowing troubles to come in the next stage.
In taking 25 wins this season though, the Sabes did a whale of a job all told, and Coach Jaime Perez, who returned to the fold for the third round after surgery kept him out of the mix for the first two playoff battles, can point to a number of signature moments in 2022, and look forward to a significant chance in 2023 to keep the ball rolling.
“I’ve seen these guys grow up, right before my eyes,” he said before Saturday’s rubber match unfolded. “We always said, from the start, with a team with so many underclassmen, it can go either way. Either they embrace the legacy, the challenge of being in this program, or they fear it. I think early on, we had some fear about stepping up and following the legacy, but as the season went on, the team just embraced it, the pressure and the expectations, and they’ve done a great job.”
Perez said that when folks upstate think of Valley baseball, they have to count the Sabes as one of the best outfits going. And the program’s success, 13 playoff series wins, speaks for itself.
“The key has been to teach these kids to believe, that they can be as good as the teams we have had in the past,” he explained. “We can talk to them about it, and we can try and teach it, but at the end of the day, they have to do it; to believe, and perform. Whatever happens today, I think they’ve done that very well. Now let’s just see what the Baseball Gods have in store today, it could go any which way, really. Evenly matched.”
In the deciding game of a playoff series, one looks hopefully for propitious omens right off the bat. La Joya gave one quickly, dropping a pop foul behind home plate in the first. Then a possible third strike to a Vela hitter was called a ball, and the bench roared its energy onto the field. At the onset, neither team nor its fans are not nervous and worried. Any little thing will send them into euphoria, often short-lived.
With one out, the next two hitters flied out, and that right there was a minor key to Saturday’s result. Eight times the Sabes sent balls into the outfield, all caught, and it seemed like at times the locals were swinging from the heels rather than looking for line drives off La Joya’s Ramos, whom it must be said looked nothing like a stopgap starter during his strong six-inning stint. On one of the long flies in the first, a Vela runner failed to tag on the out and stayed at second. Small details for a club that has been a perennial winner in baserunning battles through the years; for that matter, the Blue and Black did not bunt or run much in the third game.
After Castro set the Coyotes down in order, the Sabes came to bat in the second and began to show what they were after. Lefty Ryan Botello was hit by pitch and sprinted down to first like a modern-day Pete Rose. Fellow junior Bobby Garcia then laced a single through the right side on one of the prettiest hit-and-run sequences one will ever see, alertly moving to second on the throw to third. Rattled? David Pena came through with a sacrifice fly and sweet-swinging lefty sophomore Luke Esparza (went crazy in Game Two with two extra-base hits and four RBI) drove in a run for a 2-0 lead.
Here was the first push point and Vela was in good shape. Skiing downhill in these sorts of games is important, keeping the momentum, equally so.
This, the Sabes did not do, however, as the undaunted Coyotes came right back at ya with two runs of their own in the bottom half of the second. A leadoff walk is never a pleasant thing, for the defensive team anyway. But sophomore shortstop A.J. Reyes did his part to stop the La Joya thrust, diving to his right to spear a shot backhanded and rising to get the runner at second; one of the plays of the year, absolutely, for that very promising young prospect.
All about the details. In a series pitting evenly matched clubs, letting off the gas can be terminal. In Game Three, the bottom of the order was productive for La Joya, as in the second inning we are discussing, the eighth bat on the card doubled down the line (the line again!) and the ninth man reached on an infield error. As Vela might have had more in its half of the inning, La Joya too was stinted after scoring two runs, a fly to Garcia in left ending the threat. Still, the mojo of a 2-0 lead had vanished and it was back to the rock pile once more.
In the La Joya third, the infield mate of Reyes, sophomore Jayden Martinez, turned in a superb play at second, ranging into the hole to glove one and throw a one-hopper to first where Esparza (Breakout Season alert here for ‘23) made the pickup. The Sabes had gotten two baserunners in their part of the third but could not punch one in; another fly ball out ended the threat.
The telltale fourth arrived, La Joya at the dish, and by the time it was done, the mound had become Grand Central Station. Two hit batsmen, a walk, a wild pitch, and a pair of base hits sent La Joya ahead, 5-2, the key blow being a sickly two-strike blooper behind first base that landed just fair with a sickening thud, driving two Coyotes home. You just cannot fight the Fates sometimes, and those sorts of pinche popgun pellets played a prominent part in the proceedings Saturday. Perplexing. Baseball.
Down by 3, the New Cats got a two-out single from senior Rudy Gonzalez in the fifth, after two K’s, but could not dent the lead. Then the death, as La Joya paraded nine hitters up to the plate in the bottom, fifth, coaxing four more walks, hitting a second sac fly, and benefiting from a Vela error. Catcher Gonzalez tried to stem the flow with an acrobatic block of a wild toss from the mound, one leg in the air and body splayed perfectly level to keep the ball in his purview. But five is five and that was that: 10-2, La Joya.
In the last stretch, Vela got a couple of free passes, another HBP, and a run-scoring single from the senior Pena. Earlier, senior Nolan Salinas had come up with a diving catch in right field, and here, a note of tribute. After getting all of 42 at-bats his first two seasons on varsity, the strapping Salinas came into his own in 2022, hitting .417 with four homers and 38 RBI; at one stage a week or two back, he had smashed an absurdly marvelous 15 for 20 at the plate to lead the playoff charge. There is a kid who never gave up, who believed, and who put together a massive swan song campaign.
In the end, La Joya moved on and Vela was left to ponder the imponderables: the struggles with throwing strikes; the propensity for taking fat pitches early in the count and perhaps compensating with less than level swings deep into it; the occasional baserunning lapse; and a series of errors afield they do not usually make.
But a winning program will always do this, be critical of itself and hold itself accountable for what it did and did not do on the big stage. Not satisfied with having done their best, the old College Try, the Sabes are like all dominant squads: they cannot easily settle for getting knocked out before what they consider their time, especially by a fellow RGV contingent.
Such is the difficult, though rewarding lot of being part of one of the Valley’s gold standard programs. The expectations are monumental, the payoff sometimes beyond compare. Run with the big dogs, become a big dog, and sometimes, sadly, you get unexpectedly chomped on the heels by an underdog coming up mercurially, doggedly, from behind.