NORTH CLIPS VELA WITH CLASSIC COMEBACK AMID COPIOUS CONTROVERSY
A memo to those lost souls who missed the momentous Spring Break Skirmish between North and visiting Vela Tuesday: start kicking yourself in, 3-2-1 … now. It was that kind of zany baseball experience, when a two-run strikeout sealed the deal, the teams and coaches engaged in some extracurricular activities after the fact, and all during the night the umpires behaved more like persnickety, P.C. faculty members at Middlebury College than arbiters of the American Pastime. Anyway.
There was no mistaking the tone of the evening as the District 31-6A opener neared. North and Vela will not be taking part in any joint Pitch Perfect sing-alongs any time soon and came into the starter with something to prove. North, suddenly hot after a miserable beginning, sought to show that despite a massive amount of recent change in the program, its nine was ready to scrap. Vela, having enjoyed a very fine 10-4 non-district slate, was intent on asserting its dominance as a favorite for the crown in 2018, along of course with the dreaded and venerable Bears of P-SJ-A. After Tuesday’s madness, questions still abound.
The Coogs got off the mat in excellent fashion, fighting through a 6-1 deficit to stun the SaberCats, 10-9, and did thus due to the heroics of Argelio Guajardo, the heads-up coaching of newcomer Rick Valdez, and some exquisite luck that every club needs every now and again.
The fabulous Mexicano Guajardo, who missed the early stretches of the season, showed how ultimately valuable he is to the North charge by driving in two runs with a two-out, sixth inning double to give his team the lead at long last. Then he loped in from the outfield in the seventh to save the win from the mound, with a 1-run lead but a Vela runner perched precariously at third with two outs.
That North had rallied for five runs in the sixth – turning a 7-5 debit into a 10-7 advantage – is a tribute to the supposedly rebuilding program, but also a testament to the effect Valdez has had on the proceedings.
The former head man at Pharr North – where he turned the Raiders into a perennial playoff combatant – is the brother of EHS skipper Robert Valdez, and brings the same sort of fire and intensity to the job, though with perhaps not quite as developed a sense of superstition, admittedly. And he helped pull off the Play of the Day amid a surprised clamor from a very large Break crowd at North.
In the telltale sixth, after Guajardo had delivered the big blow for an 8-7 Coog lead, JoJo Munoz struck out on a gargantuan curve ball off the arm of reliever Nico Rodriguez. Valdez was about the only person in attendance who noticed that the catcher had not handled the third strike, which would have ended the inning. He acted accordingly as the teams reshuffled to head to the seventh inning, exhorting the North base-runners to go, go, go, go! This, they accomplished with alacrity, and as the Vela fielders milled around the baseline on their way into the dugout, runs nine and 10 crossed the plate. Stealth and quick thinking.
The drama was not yet done after this incredible turn of events, protested vehemently as they were by Vela Coach Jaime Perez and his staff. The Sabes came to bat in the last frame and nearly evened the count, thanks to a triple by sophomore Ramsey Amador; his second three-bagger of the night chased home two teammates and the spiffy, newish scoreboard flashed a 10-9 situation.
In strolled Guajardo, who in rapid fashion induced a comebacker to the mound to end the threat, and the game, in favor of the underdog.
All the while, the players on both teams were still working on adjusting to new rules passed down by the UIL that prohibit any comments from teams in the general direction of the opposition. The mandate puts the kibosh on what has been a tradition in the game since about, oh, 1869 which is, as we know, called bench jockeying. Both sides took turns screwing this up, and not in some sort of malicious sense.
Something as seemingly innocuous as the old “Dirty Ball … pelota … sucia” chant, which has been going on for decades, is now considered off limits. The intent of the rule is … is … to be a rule. It means that the time-honored ritual of gentle ribbing from the sidelines has become a no-no. Something about bullying, someone said. At any rate, multiple warnings were issued by the umps for even the slightest intimation of violation of a decidedly Draconian standard of correctness and tolerance. The kids for their part had good fun with the prohibition, trotting out coded bootleg versions of the usual good-natured taunts. That is, when they weren’t complaining about the rule, which they did to a man.
Vela jumped up big with some extra-base magic from Rodriguez and Amador in the first and at one point was ahead 6-1. This seemed to portend a boring and one-sided night as Marc Esquivel, on his way to 11 strikeouts, had the matter well in hand for the Sabes from the hill. But North rallied for four runs in the fifth aided by poor Vela defense, and then erupted for five more in the sixth, buoyed by the lanky, wavy-haired Guajardo and the aforementioned two-run K. Guajardo went 2 for 4 with 3 RBI and third baseman Joey Salinas copped a 3-for-3 night.
The Sabes got three RBI from Amador, drew eight walks from a North staff whose team ERA is a startling 6.69, and added four stole bases. But in the end, North prevailed in one of the weirdest games one will see ever. Valdez told his team, after ill feelings had unfortunately overflown in a post-game near-melee, what he thought of the action
“You showed that you can step up to defend your brothers, in your house,” he told the Coogs. “I am proud of you for not giving up. Twenty-one outs is 21 outs, and if one team doesn’t get those outs … well, you took advantage of that!”
Later, Valdez noted that the stunning result was huge for his kids.
“They have been adjusting to me, and we have been driving them pretty hard,” said the skipper, who brought in former coach Damien Gonzalez to address the club after the triumph. “We still have an overall lack of experience but this game helped us a lot. Now we realize what we can do, what we are capable of. The Bears, Vela, obviously they are top contenders, but now people know that they’d better not sleep on the Cougars!”