Balers flex their muscles in league play

Balers senior West Andrade has made a huge offensively. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The San Benito High baseball team has a term for hustling on every single play, especially running from base to base: hard 90s. in the high school game, hustling sometimes makes the difference between winning and losing. And if it doesn’t, at the very least it’s a difference-maker. Such was the case in the Haybalers’ 2-0 win over Monte Vista Christian on March 29 in a Pacific Coast League Gabilan Division contest.

Brady Miguel, the Balers’ solid leadoff hitter, didn’t have his best day offensively, failing to record a hit or walk in four plate appearances. However, Miguel still managed to get on base three times, courtesy of a fielder’s choice and two MVC errors. San Benito was ahead 1-0 with two outs in the bottom of the fourth inning and had a runner on second base when Miguel hit a slow roller right of the MVC first baseman.

Miguel, as he usually does, sprinted down the first base line and was closing fast on the MVC pitcher who was going to cover first base. The throw from the first baseman to the pitcher was perfect; however, the pitcher dropped the ball, allowing San Benito to score an insurance run for a 2-0 lead that stood up as the final score. Did Miguel’s hustle have something to do with the pitcher dropping the ball? Only the MVC pitcher could tell you whether Miguel helped break his concentration on the error. One thing is for certain: by hustling down the line, Miguel put himself in a position to make the Mustangs make the play, which they couldn’t.

“Brady is a high motor kid who never dogs it,” Balers coach Billy Aviles said. “He’s always hustling and runs everything out hard. He’s definitely been a huge part of this team this year offensively and defensively.”

Pitching, hitting and defense. San Benito possesses all three of those categories this season. Let’s start with pitching. Freshman sensation Jackson Pace started and threw five shutout innings against MVC, allowing just three hits. Jordan Yeager tossed the final two innings to preserve the shutout. Pace was superb, utilizing a low 80 mph fastball with a slider to keep the MVC bats at bay. Through last week’s play, Pace was 3-0, having allowed just five hits, zero runs and 11 strikeouts in 13.1 innings pitched.

“Jackson competes in the strike zone and throws pitches for strikes,” Aviles said. “He threw 65 pitches through five complete; you can’t ask for anything more. He’s got a good slider to set up his fastball, and a good change-up, which means he can throw three pitches for strikes. You can’t ask anything more from a pitcher.”

It’s not just the fact that Pace throws pitches for strikes; rather, when the opposing team makes contact, the balls are usually hit in the vicinity of the fielders or perhaps just beyond the range of where the players are positioned. However, San Benito’s defense is superior than most, and the win over MVC was probably its best defensive performance of the season. The web gems and slick fielding plays started in the first inning, with shortstop Miguel and third baseman Jake Yamasaki both making terrific plays to help Pace record a 1-2-3 inning.

Catcher Jacob Burley showed off his cannon for an arm, gunning down a would-be base stealer in the third and catching a baserunner leaning too far off the bag at first base in the sixth. Second baseman Noah Perez made a pair of sensational defensive gems and center fielder Jared Esparza has been terrific throughout the season.

“We’re solid behind the dish with Burley, and we’re solid up the middle with Brady and Noah because they just gobble everything up,” Aviles said. “Then you have Esparza in center, and he’s been outstanding running balls down. Jake at third base laid out in the first inning and made all of the plays that were hit to him, and that’s all you can ask, for your players to make the routine plays and the spectacular plays are a bonus.”

In several instances against MVC, balls that looked like they were going to get past some of the San Benito fielders or result in infield singles were instead gobbled up like Pac-Man. Offensively, the team has improved from last season. West Andrade, a senior designated hitter, hit his first home run of the season in a win over Palma a couple of days before the MVC game.

“It was a 3-0 count and the pitcher threw a fastball down the middle. Coach gave the sign to hit it, and I got the barrel on it and hit it out,” said Andrade, who had the team’s only RBI of the game against MVC, singling home Esparza in the first inning. My approach is to sit on the first pitch and look for a fastball. … This year we’re a more offensive team.“

Andrade has definitely taken his game up a notch since last season, both on and off the field. Andrade said he gained 10 to 15 pounds of muscle in the off-season, and the added strength and power has given him added confidence, resulting in a potent bat.

“Being stronger gives me more opportunities to hit the ball farther and with more control,” Andrade said. “A lot of hitting is mental, but once you get past the mental, it’s probably 25 percent physical. And that’s where the added strength starts to shine.”

Aviles has seen first-hand the improvement in Andrade’s game.

“West right now is swinging a hot bat,” Aviles said. “He’s being aggressive in the strike zone and he’s having fun. The big thing for him is he has another year of experience at the varsity level, another year under his belt which has made a big difference in his knowledge of the game and the speed of the game. He’s also a pretty competitive and athletic kid, which helps.”

Andrade has a sound mental approach every time he comes to the plate.

“I have the same approach on different days,” he said. “You just have to be ready when your opportunity comes.”

The Balers entered the week at 8-1 in Gabilan Division play, one game ahead of Monterey and 2 ½ games up on MVC. Monterey was responsible for San Benito’s only loss, a 6-4 decision on March 22.

“That was the one time this year we did not take care of the baseball, and we didn’t finish innings,” Aviles said. “It’s a matter of execution offensively. We have them one more time this year (on April 25), and we’re expecting a different result.”

Each year, the dynamics of a team change, and chemistry isn’t always great from season to season. however, Andrade said this year’s team has the makeup to be a cohesive group.

“We’ve all been playing together for so long,” he said. “It’s like a family, we hang out as a family, we’re a team and that’s what it means to be a Baler.”

The Balers were clearly into the game against MVC, resulting in high-quality play from both sides.

“They’re probably the best competition we’ve faced all year, and we came up to the occasion and played like we can,” Andrade said. “But whenever we play, it’s all about playing against the game, not the team. This year we have more bats in the lineup, so we’re hitting more. We have the same defense, and our pitching has done really well. That’s the recipe for success.”

Andrade has been impressed with the team’s pitching, which he faces regularly in simulated games in practice. Pace has done everything necessary to be effective against tough competition.

“He’s one of our top pitchers on the team right now,” Andrade said. “He’s just been carving (opponents up). It’s great to see a freshman do that, and that is great for the future of our team. Jackson is one of the tougher guys to hit because he has a good slider and shows a lot of stuff that players who play in the field and then come in to pitch do not have because he has dedicated himself all to pitching.”

Perez, who didn’t play last season, has been terrific in 2019. He hit third in the lineup against MVC and despite going 0 for 3, made contributions with his glove work.

“He is slick fielding and awesome to coach,” Aviles said. “He listens very well and is another player with a high motor.”

Aviles was pleased with the team’s performance, noting the quality of competition and the way the players executed in all phases of the game.

“The pitching was good, the defense was good and we capitalized when we had to,” he said. “The kids had gritty at-bats, and pitching, defense and timely hitting  are what gets it done, especially in low-scoring ballgames like these, where the extra defensive plays are huge. That extra 90 feet is big.”

Hard 90s. That is what the Balers pride themselves on, and should the talent continue to coalesce and be refined as the season goes along, they’ll have another excellent chance to make a deep and what they hope is a Central Coast Section playoff championship run.

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