Balers ready to take back league title

Balers junior Mason Marquez has been a stalwart playing second base.

Every championship level team needs players who capably fill their roles, produce key hits and play excellent defense. That’s what San Benito High has in senior center fielder Josh Harris and junior second baseman Mason Marquez. Despite not being the stars on the team, the two will play a pivotal role in determining how far the Haybalers go this season.

San Benito entered Thursday’s showdown with Palma at 10-1 overall and 8-0 in the Monterey Bay League’s Gabilan Division. The Chieftains are also a perfect 8-0 in league play, making for quite a storyline. Palma, of course, won last year’s league title and celebrated on the Balers’ home field. But San Benito got payback and then some, whipping the Chieftains 7-0 in a Central Coast Section Open Division quarterfinal.

Even though the Balers returned several starters off last year’s team that advanced to the championship game, Palma is ranked ahead of them entering Thursday’s game. Harris and Marquez, of course, know about the rankings from the different websites. Prep2prep.com has Palma as the top-ranked team in the CCS and San Benito at No. 8. The Monterey Herald has Palma No. 1 and San Benito No. 2 in their latest rankings.

“We’re obviously excited to play them again,” Harris said. “I know there will be good, competitive fire coming from both sides. I know the Monterey Herald has them as the favorite to win the league title this year, but we don’t see it that way. We have more returning talent, and we also put a pretty good beating on them in CCS. Personally, I’m not so scared, but I think they should be a little nervous playing us. Our pitching is better than ever and our offense is coming around.”

Said Marquez: “Last year they took the title away from us, and this year we’re hoping to take it away from them.”

Harris has been one of the team’s top offensive hitters this season, especially in the last several games. The 5-foot-9, 165-pound Harris focused on getting more offensive in the off-season, taking a lot of batting practice while also being disciplined in the gym with strength-training.

“I wanted to increase my power and get more extra-base hits, and that’s really been coming around the last few games,” he said. “I can definitely tell the difference it’s made—I’m hitting the ball a lot harder, and I feel strong at the plate.”

Harris was strong enough to hit a home run in a March scrimmage against Carlmont, which is one of the top-ranked teams in the section. Harris, who hit No. 6 in the lineup a year ago, has been elevated to the cleanup position this season.

“It’s a source of pride for me to hit in the four spot,” he said. “My team is looking for me to drive in some runs and get some extra-base hits, and it feels good that I’m seeing the ball a lot better and driving some runs home.”

The 5-11, 165-pound Marquez has also been solid both offensively and defensively. A year ago, Marquez started the season on the junior varsity team before getting called up to the varsity because of a season-ending injury to standout Andrew Sotelo.

“The call-up was totally unexpected,” Marquez said.

Mainly in the lineup for his deft ability to make plays in the infield last year, Marquez has added to his game this season, especially at the plate. Marquez is projected to double the number of multi-hit games this season compared to last year.

He chalked up the improved offensive output to playing against tough competition during the high school season in 2016 and as a member of Trosky Baseball in the off-season.

“Last year I was a 15 year old playing a lot of times against 18 year olds,” he said.

Marquez’s defense is solid if not spectacular, and he focuses on nailing drill after drill so everything becomes routine for him during game situations.

“It’s the repetitiveness of doing the exact same thing over and over that gets you to the level where you want to be,” he said.

Balers coach Billy Aviles said he appreciates everything Harris and Marquez bring to the team, including the intangibles: playing unselfishly and executing the fundamentals.

“Josh is not a big guy, but he plays big,” Aviles said. “He does everything the right away and is always in the right spot at the right time. He’s always aware of situational type stuff and gives himself up for the team all the time. Mason has always been solid defensively, but he’s picked it up offensively as well. He’s a great situational hitter where he can hit behind runners in RBI situations. He’s doing a great job all the way around.”

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