March 15, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
The first thing one notes is the baseball scheduling format, which is unique for the most part. Teams in 31-5A, Vela among them now, will oppose each school in a two-game series, back to back, a bit more like the Major Leagues in that respect instead of the usual high school order: play each team once in the first round, repeat in second. It means that when you face an easy team, easy week, although easier said than done usually. And when the opponent is strong, it’s two toughies, bam-bam, one here and one there.
The SaberCats are getting used to the drill, under fire, as after a 4-game winning streak to begin their first season in the latest 5A journey, they drew Sharyland. Now the Rattlers are not quite as powerful as they were back in the days of Bart Bickerton and Tres Barrera, et al, but they are still a very quality nine. The Sabes, who have also been among the baseball perennials for the better part of a decade, also have to now contend with a rugged McAllen High squad and then a fine Pioneer group. But first, following the sweep suffered at the hands of the Rattlers, Vela has to vie with Valley View, which has carved out a similar 4-2 mark so far. All to illustrate that in some sports, the move to 5A has been harder than in others. After the basketball teams ran to league titles, the diamond squads at Vela are trying to duplicate, and given the wealth of talent in the 5A league, the task will be a stern one.
After the Sabes were bombed at home Wednesday, allowing 16 runs in a dispiriting outing, Thursday was much, much better, as Coach Jaime Perez and staff saw their kids rally consistently, losing late, 13-9 in a bit of a slugfest out in Mission. Something suggests that the rivalry between the schools will remain potent, as it has been whenever they’ve crossed paths in the past.
Sharyland benefited by a Vela single-game record of eight hit batsmen Wednesday, salting away the first W. The Rattlers got just nine hits in amassing 16 runs and drew six walks from four Vela pitchers, all underclassmen. The Sabes managed a measly three hits, although they did score three times in the first with a typical Blue and Black manufacture job. However, these were the only runs for a wounded crew missing several key figures.
The next night of the format saw the Sabes again leap out of the box with fire, notching another three runs. Sharyland, an early title favorite one guesses, zoomed in front 5-3, only to see the visitor come back with two to tie it, showing the sort of fight Perez was looking for all along. Vela ended a productive seventh with three more runs, and for the night Ryan Botello and A.J. Reyes had two hits apiece, sophomore Nick Guevara drove in a pair, and junior Randon Amador knocked in two for the second night in a row. Still not enough to get the split, but good enough to show what might lie in store for the club.
Perez will agree that this season’s edition is mighty long on potential, with some excellent underclass kids who have great size and promise, but are not terribly savvy yet, with only five or six seniors of note.
“We don’t have a lot of varsity experience out there, not compared to previous seasons,” said the fiery coach who’s made the program at Vela into an exemplar of excellence, year after year. “We have some players who, they don’t quite know yet how to be ‘the guy.’ Every year a new group steps up into the leadership roles, being the ‘guys,’ as leaders, and we’re going through that right now. Plus, you look around and some of the guys we depend on are down. This series will be tough, no doubt.”
His quotes came on Wednesday, a frustrating evening that just got away after a while. During the middle stretches of the night, Perez was fuming at the umpire after a controversial call on the bases, and annoyed at the fact that his club was giving free bases.
“We’re not throwing strikes, that’s all there is to it,” he noted, as the Sabes as stated hit eight Rattlers at the plate, though here let it be suggested that the visiting hitters were not exactly going through any gymnastics to avoid the ball. Shary hogged the plate in Game One, showed up wearing elbow pads.
FESTIVE AT FIRST
Sometimes during Spring Break you don’t know what you’ll get, given the circumstances, but the Vela faithful were turned out well, and upon entering were treated to a slammin’ “Pride and Joy,” for what would Spring Break in the RGV be without a little Stevie Ray Vaughan? (See: Isla Blanca Park, 1985). Before the first pitch, Perez had spoken of a few of his youngsters, on a very youthful roster, who might someday be big-time contributors. When former star hurler Nico Rodriguez was spotted in the stands – garbed in the baseball orange of UTRGV after two seasons at Kansas State – Perez noted the Vela alum and also mentioned another college athlete, Aaron Galvan, who played for him at Vela.
“Now you take [Santiago] Montes for example,” Perez said, speaking of the tall freshman who has fanned 33 and walked just seven in his debut season. “He’s a big kid who has a lot of potential, maybe one day he’ll end up being like Nico. Long way to go, he’s just what, 14?”
The other freshman chunker who has them talking was the starter for the opener, burly Baylor Garza. He had thrown a nice game earlier in the season at a tournament, against state-ranked Sinton, and though he was to find the going somewhat dicey against the Rattlers, Garza is certainly penciled into the plans. The ace of the staff would be formidable Jake Dufner, but he’s been hampered by an oblique strain and reduced to pinch-hitting as of late. Also on the shelf was speedy outfielder Justin Navarro, who has 13 steals this season and was to return to the lineup for the second bout, Thursday. A few other notables sat out, too.
Without Navarro, the outfield had a slightly new look to it, with footballer Derek Rodriguez in center (and he appears to have quite an arm), flanked by Amador (yes, that Amador fam!) in right and rangy senior Danny Reyes in left. Left to right: third baseman Joey Garcia, a stocky corner infielder; elegant shortstop Reyes; gamer second baseman Jayden Martinez; and strapping junior Luke Esparza at first. The eye test revealed a physically imposing group of kids, whereas Sharyland brought some littler rascals over for the fun, some scrappy kids who played pretty well all told.
In the Vela first, after Garza had retired the foe in order, Martinez – one of the best all-around ballplayers in the league for sure – was nipped by a pitch to start out. Bobby Garcia, the senior vet, then stroked a base hit but a mammoth throw by Shary CF Alejandro Islas – he was filth in the first game with seven RBI, including a clinching grand slam – kept a run off the board. No worries, as with the bases loaded Garcia drew an RBI walk and Amador slammed a single through the right side for a 3-0 advantage.
Sharyland plated a couple in its next at-bat and would be up 6-3 before long. It started with a rocking home run off the scoreboard in right, boing!! And in came Phillip Hernandez, a junior who exhibited some serious breaking stuff during his stint on the mound. Despite some defensive work from hustling Martinez at second, the Rattlers were stretching the lead.
The Sabes reached a key juncture in the third, getting two aboard via walks, before muffing a bunt attempt and then striking out. Shary’s pitcher was working quickly, perhaps too much so, and a brief row ensued over that, as it will at a baseball game, the occasional wave of protest and recrimination. Grumbles. Then came the collision on the bases where a Vela runner appeared to be interfered with, and yet not, as it turns out, by arbiter interpretation, anyway. The Snakes escaped without giving up a run, and a nice chance had passed for the home nine.
The fourth/fifth was the undoing, as Hernandez eventually yielded to Martin Pena, another guy who has some stuff to deal to the plate but is still settling in. One could tell that each of the kids who climbed the dirt Wednesday has some ability; it just was starting to seem a hard day’s night. Two more Rattlers were plunked by pitches in the fourth, neither of them injured at all, and the rout started to take shape. At this stage Vela had just two hits, Sharyland seven, so it wasn’t as if the visitor was tearing the cover off the ball.
In the bottom of the fifth Martinez whacked a base knock for Vela, the team’s first since the initial inning, but the Sabes could not rally. The Rattlers finished things up in six as the fourth Vela arm, Isaias Castro, came on to get some seasoning. The Sabes weren’t sloppy afield in the first game, making zero errors, but they just gave the Rattlers too many freebies.
This, as discussed, was turned aright the next night during a back-and-forth affair at Shary that is probably indicative of what the next two seasons will be like in 31-5A. Lots of solid teams over there, with Shary (6-0) and Pioneer (same) looking salty; Mac High right behind at 5-1; Vela and Valley View at 4-2 heading into the series next week: Tuesday there, Friday there. All of a sudden, important series ahead. Not easy.
Perez was unfazed after the first night – as he always is – and shared proud tidings about son Mito, the Vela ex who’s making a super name as a starting college catcher up at Tarleton. Coach P’s exes are everywhere it seems, especially the hometown college. Aside from Nico, R.J. Ochoa has hit well this season (.289) and city mates Rudy Gonzalez (Vela) and Daren Barrera (EHS) are on the roster as well. Of course, the main man as far as former Sabes go has to be Isaac Lopez, who has blossomed into a team cog now. Izo is mashing at a team-best .420 with 15 RBI so far for the Vaqueros; he’s slugged .652, hit four bombs, and walked more than he’s fanned, as the program’s second sacker. Perez is proud of all his donkeys, mules, and dogs that have come and gone, and now he’s at work with the next crop.
“I think tonight we didn’t compete well at times, and that’s not good enough, not at Robert Vela High School,” he said. “They know that, and we’ll fix that. But it’s the way the game goes sometimes, especially against good teams. You have to play almost perfect sometimes. The strike zone dictated too much for us tonight.”
The coach suggested that Thursday would be better and it was by all accounts so, as the injured troops filtered back toward the front and the talented underclassmen now know what it’s like to be in a big series against a big team. The experience will only make the Sabes stronger as they prepare to tackle the many challenges still to come in 31-5A. Montes came on to throw in Game Two and punched out five in his toil, and perhaps he will be the Galvan or Rodriguez to come.
After the Valley View series, it’s relatively smooth sailing against Rowe and Pharr North, both of whom are off to poor starts in the league, but one never knows. Then starting April 10, it’s two against The Mac and a pair v. Pioneer. Perez and his program have always risen to the challenge, in fact thrived on doing that without hesitation, and they feel that 2023 will be no exception. Expect the Blue and Black to be prominent speakers in the baseball title debate, being conducted this spring in Hidalgo County at a park near you, week by week.
PRACTICE GAMES GALORE
Vela will be eight games into its league slate by the time the 31-6A race kicks off March 24. So far, the six teams in 31-6A have compiled a winning percentage of just .357, as against the .505 mark achieved by the Lower Valley league, 32-6A. A somewhat more alarming stat to go with that: in 23 matches against potential playoff foes such as Brownsville Rivera and Los Fresnos, the three city outfits: Econ (7-11), North (3-14), and EHS (5-14-1), have won four.
The Jags have taken three against Lower Valley foes, EHS one, over San Benito, and with two non-district nights to go before the gun fires, each of the locals is steadily preparing for the slate. Econ has shots at home against Rivera and at Hanna next week, while North has Hanna at home and Weslaco on the road. The Bobcats, who open the loop with a roadie at Mission March 24, will face Harlingen at home and then travel to Rivera Friday. Opening day also sports Econ-P-SJ-A and North at home against La Joya.