Balers have unfinished business

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Balers senior Jared Esparza figures to play a key role both on the mound and at the plate this season. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Jared Esparza didn’t pitch a single inning last year, but he figures to play a prominent role on the mound this season for San Benito High, which opened the 2020 season with back-to-back games Monday and Tuesday.

“We’ll look for him to be in a closer type role,” Haybalers coach Billy Aviles said. “He’s a fastball-curveball guy who has a lot of run with a funky arm slot, so it’s hard for hitters to pick up the ball right away. The ball gets up on you fast.”

The 6-foot-1, 170-pound Esparza will spend most of his time in center field, the position he played last season. Having to double dip means there will be scenarios when Esparza could play the hero with his bat in one inning and with his arm in the bottom half of the inning. It’s a challenge Esparza is relishing.

“I’m up for this,” said Esparza, who prepared for the pitching role this season by making several pitching appearances in the travel ball season with Aldrete Baseball. “I got into it with mechanics and getting everything down that I needed to get taken care of.”

As usual, the Balers will be the favorite or at the very least one of the favorites to win the Pacific Coast League’s Gabilan Division. They’re talented, deep and put in long hours of training and practice time to maximize their potential.

“I’m really excited for our pitching and returning six starters, which is never a bad thing,” Aviles said. “We’re expecting a lot more offensive output, and we’re a really balanced team with speed and power.”

“We have a lot of returning seniors who as juniors last year really molded together and made a big jump,” Esparza said. “I think the sky is the limit this year.”

Marcus Aranda, a senior catcher, and Aidan Shaw, a first baseman who recently committed to play at Menlo College, are the team’s top returning power sources. Aranda was a couple of hits shy of batting .400 last year and had seven home runs. He’s also made improvements on defense, Aviles said. Like Aranda, Shaw displayed plenty of pop in his bat a year ago.

“We’ll really be depending on Marcus and Aiden for most of the punch in our lineup,” Aviles said.

Noah Perez, a senior second baseman, is coming off a breakout 2019 season. In 2019, Perez displayed an all-around game and made an impact on the team in several different ways, including with his defense. Jeremy Ashford, a senior right fielder, also returns as does left fielder Zack Buzzetta, a Sonoma State commit.

“Zack is the kind of kid who sets the table for the big guys,” Aviles said. “He’s good at moving guys over, hitting behind the defense and is a heads-up player. Just a phenomenal player.”

Austin Salamida, a junior shortstop, played a pivotal role late in the season last year, and more of the same is expected out of him this season. Nick Skardoutos, a senior catcher/utility who has committed to La Verne, was a backup last year but has worked hard to have his best season yet on the varsity squad in 2020. Aviles said Skardoutos gained 20 pounds in the off-season and has become a more physical player. San Benito graduated most of its key pitchers from a year ago; however, it does return standout sophomore Jackson Pace, who had an outstanding 2019 season and has the ability to become one of the best pitchers in the Central Coast Section this year.

Pace has been hitting 91 mph with his fastball, and Aviles expects that number to go up later in the season. Pace’s best pitch is his slider, which has a lot of movement and late action. Pace literally had only a couple of rough innings in 2019, a testament to his maturity and resiliency. One of those rough innings came in the CCS Division I playoff semifinal loss to Mitty, 15-5.

“Jackson learned a lot last year playing a valuable role as a freshman,” Aviles said. “For a freshman to be on that stage in the CCS semis against a team like Mitty is very rare. That loss will pay dividends for a lot more victories down the road for sure.”

Aviles is also high on Ryan Io and Justin Cortez, two pitchers who possess mid- to high 80 mph fastballs. Cortez and Io are both three-pitch pitchers who can throw them all for strikes, Aviles said. Cortez is a 6-3, 200-pound junior who has a terrific changeup and a hard fastball. Io, also a junior, is a control pitcher and can work all sides of the plate and zone with efficiency.

“Ryan has a great mound presence and works really, really hard,” Aviles said. “He competes with three pitches, as does Justin. They’ve both been pretty impressive, so I’m really happy with our depth on the mound.”

Esparza plans on being a shut down closer, a role he’s been preparing for since last summer when playing for Aldrete Baseball. Near the end of the 2019 high school season, Aviles and Esparza had a conversation looking to 2020, with Esparza possibly taking the mound. Esparza pitched regularly in Little League but sparingly after that. Once that conversation took place, Esparza made it a point to pitch as often as he could and strength train to prepare his body for the rigors of his final high school season. Esparza, who pitched 14 innings in his sophomore year while on the junior varsity team, said he gained 10 to 15 pounds of muscle in the off-season, which has given him some added confidence both as a hitter and pitcher.

“I just made the transition in every part of the game and upgraded a little bit of everything,” he said. “I had to reinvent myself a little bit, but it’s not like pitching is something new to me. I’ve done it before and now it’s about refining my mechanics and focusing on the little things. As far as hitting, I just want to continue to do what I did last year and hopefully hit for more power. I want to get on base and make things happen.”

Esparza said due to the glut of returning starters on this year’s team, competition for playing time remains high, which should motivate everyone to work that much harder.

“Everyone has picked up right where they left off from last season,” Esparza said. “It’s super hard for coach to put a lineup together because everyone is at the same skill level. Whoever is playing better is going to get that start.”

As one of the starting seniors, Esparza wants to lead by his voice and his actions. He remembers older players teaching him how to do the right things, and now it’s time for him to do the same with the sophomores and juniors on the team. Being a “professional” at the high school level means taking care of your body and sacrificing certain things to be in the best position possible to play at an optimum level. To that end, Esparza said he emphasizes sleep, which of course is treated as the Holy Grail for professional athletes as it restores their mind and helps their body to recover from grueling workouts. Esparza doesn’t like to skimp on shut-eye, aiming anywhere from eight to 10 hours of sleep a night.

“I’ve been told eight, nine, ten hours of sleep is great,” he said. “Pretty much 90 percent of the time if there is a game the next day, I won’t go out for something unless it’s a super family occasion. I like to chill at the house and be back by 10 (p.m.) if I do go out. I like to relax and think about the next day’s game and prepare myself mentally and physically.”

San Benito had another solid season in 2019, although it ended rather unceremoniously against Mitty, which ended the game early by invoking the 10-run, six-inning mercy rule in the CCS playoffs.

“We were all pretty devastated about it that we pretty much got manhandled,” Esparza said. “We were thinking we can’t go out like that. So we’re pretty focused on letting that never happen again.”

Esparza credits his parents, Nicole and Oscar, for their unwavering support over the years. Jared recognizes he couldn’t have succeeded without his parents’ help, especially in regards to his travel ball season last year when Aldrete Baseball played in tournaments in Texas and all throughout California. Jared had at least one of his parents traveling with him to support him at the games, and that hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“My mom and dad, they’re the true game changers,” Jared said. “All of the time they’ve sacrificed for me has been amazing. They’ll take however much time off from work to be at my side.”