Adrian Ruiz had a huge impact in Thursday's playoff victory. He made a diving grab in center field and laid down a sacrifice-bunt in the fifth inning that advanced the runner who eventually scored. Photo by Robert Eliason.
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Two down, one to go. The San Benito High baseball team finds itself on the verge of history after a 2-0 win over Mountain View on Wednesday in a Central Coast Section Division II playoff semifinal. The No. 2 seed Haybalers (17-9) play host to No. 8 Sequoia of Redwood City (22-3) in the championship game on Saturday at 11am.

Even though San Benito has long established itself as one of the best baseball programs in the section, it has yet to win a coveted CCS title. 

“It would really be a special moment for everybody if we could win,” said Jackson Pace, who earned the victory and struck out six over five shutout innings. “Not only would we be making history as a team, but it’s something we would remember for the rest of our lives. It’s something I’ve lost sleep about and something I want to see come true.” 

The Balers prevailed in another white-knuckle affair after edging Bellarmine 4-3 in the quarterfinals. They’re making all the routine plays and the spectacular ones, including a highlight-reel one by center fielder Adrian Ruiz that robbed the Spartans of extra bases and served as a huge momentum shifter. 

“That play might have turned the game,” Pace said. “The ball was carrying quite a bit and honestly I thought it wasn’t going to go well for us. My heart kind of dropped a bit, but when he made that catch, it turned the tide of the game.”

Pace said Ruiz ran a good 30 to 40 feet on the play and lunged full out near the warning track to make the grab. 

“To say the least, it was a spectacular play,” Pace said. “If Adrian doesn’t make that play, it’s at least a double. That would’ve hurt, let’s just say that.”

Ryan Io pitched two shutout innings of relief, and Jaden Mingus drove in both of the team’s runs, the first on a line-drive single to right field in the bottom of the third inning. Alex Valencia scored on the play, pinch running for Keon Texeira, who was hit by a pitch. 

“When I saw Jaden’s hit fall, it was definitely a relief,” Pace said. “It was like, ‘Alright, we got the lead and we can hold them now and push through to victory.’”

San Benito got an insurance run in the fifth. Austin Salamida drew a leadoff walk and Valencia followed with a single to right field after faking a bunt. Ruiz laid down a textbook sacrifice-bunt that advanced the runners to second and third base. Mingus followed with a groundout RBI to score Salamida. The Balers won despite being outhit, 8-4. However, Mountain View struck out eight times and San Benito hitters only struck out twice.

Breyon Chavez drew two walks, highlighting the team’s plate discipline and ability to put the ball in play. Pace was eager to perform after having a short outing in the quarterfinals against Bellarmine. He needed to throw only 75 pitches to complete five innings in the semifinals.

“I had to pitch well because there wasn’t going to be a tomorrow if I didn’t perform,” said Pace, who was still throwing 91 mph in the fifth inning. “It was literally a must-win game, and that’s the mindset we had to be in to win the game. My mindset was to throw as hard as I can every time and whatever happens, happens.”

Pace said there is a lot to like about this year’s squad. On sheer physical talent alone, coach Billy Aviles acknowledges this team doesn’t quite stack up to some of the San Benito teams in the past. However, when it comes to chemistry, making plays in the clutch and the intangibles, this squad ranks high up on the list. It’s no wonder the Balers find themselves one win away from a section title.

“We’re just a sound team all the way through,” Pace said. “We’ve got depth with our pitching, and one through nine we can get guys on base at any time in any circumstance.”

To win the program’s first-ever CCS championship, the Balers will need to get through another tough opponent in Sequoia out of the Peninsula Athletic League’s Bay Division. It promises to be another nail-biting, white-knuckle affair, something the Balers have thrived in all season. 

“We’re feeling confident and everybody will be ready to go Saturday,” Pace said. “It’s something everybody wants to win, and as soon as I came out of the game (Wednesday), I could taste it and envision it happening. So we’re looking forward to this vision coming true.”

Pace knows the players are in an unprecedented situation as everyone has been on summer vacation for two weeks. 

“People are off school and can do things, but ultimately we have to stay focused on the goal and want it badly enough to not go out and be doing stupid things or anything like that,” Pace said.

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Emanuel Lee primarily covers sports for Weeklys/NewSVMedia's Los Gatan publication. Twenty years of journalism experience and recipient of several writing awards from the California News Publishers Association. Emanuel has run eight marathons with a PR of 3:13.40, counts himself as a true disciple of Jesus Christ and loves spending time with his wife and their two lovely daughters, Evangeline and Eliza.


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