May 20, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
It’s definitely sometimes a burden to be Vela, although a blessing besides. The SaberCats know that every team is out to beat them, especially in town, adding a layer of pressure although pride as well. And the Sabes also understand that when it comes to the playoffs in just about every major sport, the team in question has a charge – a responsibility of sorts – to perform and achieve, excel. It’s the Expectations Game and like it or not, Vela will always be evaluated, particularly internally, on the basis of its degree-of-success in the postseason. Fair enough though marginally unfair. Want to be the best, the old saying goes … then beat the best. Now the Sabes are just about the best in the Valley in several sports, and this high line ebbs and flows, never falling below the “among the best” level in say, football, basketball, soccer and so on. Thus, adjudicating the latest Blue and Black contingent of athletes is always a complex exercise.
To wit, the baseball group’s exit out of the bracket following a third-round defeat at the hands of a skilled and consistent Palmview nine from La Joya. On one hand, Coach Jaime Perez and his kids made it to the regional quarterfinals for the fifth time in a row (here we append the tiring “except for the COVID year,” addendum re: 2020, when there were sadly no baseball playoffs) and this campaign have captured more than 20 victories for the fifth time too (*), a rare feat indeed.
On the other hand, for a program that has become accustomed to being one of the last RGV diamond teams standing as summer beckons, taking two playoff series and coming close to a third, well, it’s not that it’s not “good enough” per se … It’s very “good,” all right, but perhaps to some, not “enough.” Expectations again. People anticipate that the Sabes will be there when the rest have fallen off the pace, and it always seems a shock of sorts when they are eliminated, especially by a local squad.
They don’t take winning for granted on Canton, really, but it’s sometimes tough to get too excited about anything short of a masterful season. Such is the lot of the perennially successful. The impatient fan may be tempted to think, “We are going to win, right?”
But no one wins all the time.
Which brings us around to the weekend completed, during which Vela was knocked down by a Palmview crew that had reached this stage of the playoffs four times in its history without an advance to the fourth round. The Sabes, who won three series and marched to that elusive Rare Air back in 2017-18 – dropping out against SA Churchill after having won the Valley – were trying to return to the exalted climes again, but fell just shy.
The reasons are numerous, starting with a comeback win by the Lobos in Game One Friday at UTRGV. This group has made a name for itself in recent times for playing hard and always seeming to be involved in nail-biters: witness the six previous playoff games over a 12-season span when Palmview engaged in extra innings to decide a postseason bout, most of them wins. Down a run in the seventh, the foe rallied for a 6-5 victory, a few Vela mistakes having cost the Sabes dearly.
Then came Saturday, when a storm that never materialized was nonetheless threatening all day, causing Perez and Co. to adopt a mantra: win one now, and then go chase the game (the dry site) if need be. There was an 84 percent chance of much rain long about 8 p.m. Saturday, meaning the clubs might just have to get on the bus and drive for Game Three, should such a need arise, looking for a suitably dry sky and field. Before Saturday’s ball game began, the ominous clouds gathered with distressing force, and knots of fans walking into the UTRGV park smiled nervously at each other as they handled chairs, rooting paraphernalia, and ah yes, umbrellas. In the dugout, coaches recalled with amusement and mild trepidation the 2016 area series against Calallen, when a monster front raged in without notice, drenching the teams at neutral P-SJ-A with a torrent of rain that had the players, coaches, and media types scrambling for cover against a driving rain that hit so hard it hurt. Literally.
The fact is, the weather never came through. There was no deluge of Noah Saturday, anywhere close. But the Lobos did come through, handing Vela its first shutout loss of a fine season that saw the club win 25 times all told. The 7-0 whitewashing was marshaled by an opportunistic Palmview band that took its chances when they presented themselves – including a huge 4-run uprising in the fifth – and benefited from a ridonkulous pitching outing from a tricky miser of a lefthanded pitcher who owned the corners and never allowed the Sabes to get it going at the plate.
It marked the second straight season that Vela had gone out in the third bout against an eastern Hidalgo County opponent, following last year’s defeat against La Joya. Three years ago it was a narrow-run thing down in Los Fresnos, when the Sabes were nipped at the wire by a Falcon outfit that seemed destined to advance. Can’t argue with the records, though: Vela has won 15 playoff series during Perez’ reign.
Not to say that Vela has tapped out, reached the unwinnable level. Not at all. The Sabes could have triumphed in all three quarterfinal series just mentioned, and the fact that they did not accomplish this does not gainsay the excellence of the program, for it is among the very best, year in and out, usually in the region, certainly the Valley. It’s just to say that when you’ve been a killer for so long, each season it takes more and more juice (and no little well-placed luck) to match the exploits of the past. Again, such is life for a program laboring under such great expectations. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
SATURDAY NIGHT SPECIAL
Perez has been through the emotional ringer for some time now, as most people know, surviving a battle against cancer that has had him in and out of the coaching lineup. Ever dogged, he’s persevered, beaten the rap, and at a certain point in this season, was able to bring his son, Izzy, back to Vela after the latter’s sojourn at Pioneer. Before his team began to try and stave off elimination in the playoffs, the hard-driving manager spoke to the emotional effect of the extended ordeal.
“You have to embrace it, coaching your kids, but it’s tough,” Perez began, referring to all the players, yes, but also to his kid, the second to don the Blue and Black, after the great Mito’s four-year run of nonpareil highlights. “To have another son play for me, and to see Izzy contribute like he’s done down the stretch, well, that leaves me speechless. It’s been tough on him, what’s going on with me, because we forget: kids have feelings … and I have had to figure out how to work that. Embrace every opportunity, for whatever it brings.”
Perez the player knocked a pair of hits Friday and has chimed in well during his limited time with the club. But Saturday, it might have taken a Mito or two – plus an Izzy – to get past Palmview, such was the resolve with which the Lobos went about their business. Sharp in the field, pesky at the plate, riding the career game from its hurler, the La Joya team matched zeroes with the Sabes until the telltale fifth.
Prior to that it was playoff baseball. Not quite as amazing as Friday, when an Instant Classic unfolded to reveal taut lead changes, key junctures, and a wild crowd in excess of 4,000 faces. But the infield play of Vela was classic in the early going for Game Two. Junior Jayden Martinez, who has evolved into everybody’s MVP for 2023 with a tremendous offensive record, dived to his right and came up throwing to 4-to-3 a Lobo in the first. Then, senior Jake Dufner, winner of 10 games this season with a flat skimpy ERA, vaulted off the mound to cover the bag on a 3-to-1 sequence, barreling to the spot like a defensive end racing off the edge to sack the passer. Which makes sense.
To the plate for the bottom of the first, Perez sent his catcher up to lead off, an oddity to be sure (though see Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane of the 1925 Philadelphia A’s, among others) but again, understandable, given senior Ryan Botello’s propensity for patience at the dish. Eagle Eye.
Though it did nothing but sprinkle intermittently Saturday, the air was slow and thick with humidity, and Vela would hit too many fly balls in Game Two, balls that died on the vine as they plunked tamely into Lobo mitts. Palmview (now 29-8 in its best season ever) has committed less than an error a game this season, and its outfield was fast, sure, and confident. Conversely, Vela mishandled a pair of fly balls in the clincher as its outer garden struggled at times to come up clean with the pill.
Early chance alert … Perez’ posse had two runners on and two outs in the first, after singles from Martinez and the stylish senior, Bobby Garcia. Alas, no runs, and this was the first of three paramount situations during the evening when the Sabes could not produce the clutch hit. A mere bingle might have opened a floodgate.
Duf, tossing heat and searching for the curve, cruised on, with his defense defending well, the former making another putout on a grounder to the right of first base, narrowly avoiding spikes as he tagged the bag and danced free from the runner’s path. Soon, junior shortstop A.J. Reyes fielded sharply to start a scintillating 6-4-3 double play, his pal Martinez pivoting like a stocky dynamo at the second base bag to fire on for the inning-ending twin-killing. At this stage the contingent of Vela rooters went into overdrive, led by a couple of blue/black-clad moms who were loud, proud, and unbowed the whole game. Nice!
In the second, the Vela kids were saying “choke and poke” in the dugout, instructing each other to shorten up on the bat, read the sweeping deliveries of the Palmview pitcher, and try and get on base, by any means necessary. Yet, Herminio Gonzalez, a smooth and swarthy portsider, was simply untouchable, his offerings tailing away, zipping in, and generally eluding any sufficient contact from hometown bats. He wasn’t throwing gas really; more like mist … vapors.
In the third, Botello got aboard on a bouncer that hopped up on the Palmview fielder, but nothing came of it. In this series, the Sabes never got active on the basepaths, where they had stolen more than 100 sacks, and only attempted a bunt or two. PV was locked in and kept the Sabes locked out, unable to do what they often do best, which is put pressure on the opposing defense with speed and athleticism.
Through four then, scoreless, well-played and the spoils in the offing, ready for whichever powerful team would seize the moment.
Came the fifth, and Palmview.
An error and wild pitch led to a long shot to the outfield that Vela could not squeeze. Dufner, the charismatic talisman who has helped this year’s squad to great success, summoned all his toughness to try and make it through the jam, the bases loaded, one out. But a miscue afield and then the shock of a double steal, and a few solid hits later, it was 4-0. On a night when their hurler was on a roll, Real Talk pitching and mastery in abundance, this was all the Lobos would need.
In the magical season of 2018, Vela mashed .366 as a team with such dangerous luminaries as Ramsey Amador, Aaron Galvan, Nico Rodriguez, and Eric Martinez. This year’s group carved out a .304 average, but did not come near to scoring 301 runs, as the 2018 crew did. Instead, it was Palmview which entered the series with a glittering batting clip (.353), and Saturday, the Lobos got seven runs, though six were unearned, it must be noted.
They were on their way, the Lobos, and in the past decade or so, the program has enjoyed considerable success against ECISD, to the tune of 19 wins and 12 losses (two tourney ties). That includes a run of success against Vela, eight wins in 10 tries now. They weren’t perfect but they were sound, and at the tight spots, the Sabes could not find the magic that they are used to employing.
One knew this was not to be the home team’s night when hard-edged senior Justin Navarro beat out an infield hit but was then caught stealing. The mercurial and exciting Navarro, on his way to college football soon enough, has been one of the Valley’s utmost baserunning kings, with a whopping 25 steals this season. But Palmview had the antidote. As it did for the measure of the encounter.
The Lobos added a fifth tally in the sixth, getting in motion on a first-and-third situation and scoring off an error. Dufner flattened a satisfying line drive for a base hit in the Vela half, but that was it for the inning. The Sabes never bunched them together for a rally, as Palmview had done in the fifth. To end it, a dropped fly ball allowed a Lobo run in the seventh, and another eventually came in, leading to the final count of 7-0.
During the late stages, the moment got the best of the Lobo supporters, and they engaged in a bit of ragging and razzing from the stands. Nothing too horrible, and as one Vela coach suggested, not unexpected.
“Real baseball fans will cheer any good play, from either team,” the coach suggested, as the PV group hooted at every Vela pitcher.
“Ball three, ball three, ball three!” kind of thing, a behavior that has of late been largely prohibited in the dugouts, but not, apparently, in the stands. So be it.
“But these fans, they’re not really baseball fans,” the coach continued. “Nothing against them, but they’re Palmview fans, and that’s the way it is. Can’t blame ‘em. Most fans root for their team only.”
Right, no hard feelings. It has long been tradition for the Valley to come together at this phase of the game, galvanizing around the remaining combatants, which would be P-SJ-A from 6A and Palmview from 5. It is the Valley Way, to represent against out-of-area foes. It hurts, but it’s cool. What we do.
So it’s done, and the seniors quietly watched their high school sports careers come to an end Saturday, Navarro, Garcia and Dufner to continue their athletic odyssey, the latter two on the baseball team at Our Lady of the Lake in San Antonio. Duf ended the season with 10 wins and 32 RBI to join a select circle of Vela greats who have reached the 30 RBI mark. There are 11 who have done it, nine actually, seeing that the memorable Amador and massive Eric Martinez both did it twice (Martinez set the school record that 29-win season of 2018 with a crazy 46 runs driven home). He (Duf) and the Sabes were not satisfied with the outcome of the series obviously, and will feel that they could have, maybe should have, come out on top.
That they did not does not make for a dark mark on or against the program, although it does not represent a true bright spot either. Simply another point on a very successful nine-year curve, and this is baseball. You come, you love, you play, you jet. Sometimes with more glory than not, often with near-misses that will stick in the craw for years to come. For the very best teams, winning is not a given, a birthright, a gimme. It’s something you train for, fight for, and sometimes achieve. When the goal slips from the grasp against a credible opponent who has made the right plays at the right time, all one can do is nod. Props.
Vela will be in the fray again for 2024, hoping to get back to this stage and beyond by integrating some new faces alongside J. Martinez and Reyes, with sophomore-to-be Santiago Montes ready once again to explode on Valley hitters. They will all seek to do the job: continue to keep their program at the top of the heap. After the trials and tribulations the coach and his family – and team – have been through, expect the Sabes to redouble their efforts with a will to surpass this season’s performance.
Coach P has certainly done his utmost to model toughness, patience, and desire for his kids during this most difficult time and we are thus reminded of an ancient but trusty piece of wisdom: often, with the young, it’s not necessarily what you say to them that matters/teaches most … it’s what you do, how you comport yourself under pressure, how effectively you are able to make lemonade when adversity gives you bitter lemons. It’s who you are that matters, and this is what a successful program is all about.
Expectations, responsibilities. Glories, and sometimes not.