The San Benito High baseball team’s 0-6 start is but a distant memory as the playoffs approach. Since then, the Haybalers have gone 9-2, including a 11-9 win over Palma on May 17. Although the team’s pitching wasn’t up to snuff against the Chieftains, it has been one of the main reasons for San Benito’s success.
Starters Jackson Pace, Ryan Io and Justin Cortez have been outstanding and Austin Salamida and Ricky Madrigal have been equally terrific out of the bullpen. Balers coach Billy Aviles said Madrigal, a Palma transfer, has also been hitting well. He had two hits against Palma and also pitched in the game, recording three strikeouts.
“It always starts with pitching and defense,” Aviles said.
The Balers are starting three sophomores—Matthew Pena, Jaden Mingus and Breyon Chavez—for the first time in a long time. The trio has shined, with Pena hitting over .800 with runners in scoring position and over .500 overall, Aviles said. That’s big-time numbers for a senior standout, let alone a sophomore who had his freshman season washed out due to Covid.
“Matthew Pena is playing unbelievable,” Aviles said. “What he’s doing is video game stuff. He’s a hard worker, a quiet kid who goes up to the plate with a plan and sticks to his approach. His swing is very repeatable and he’s a competitor.”
Pena plays first base and bats either third or fourth in the lineup; Chavez hits in the Nos. 5 or 6 spot and plays shortstop; and Mingus hits leadoff and plays second base. They are also excellent defensively and Aviles is confident they’ll continue to improve both offensively and defensively. For Pena, success has come by keeping things simple.
“My approach is to always hit the ball hard, make solid contact and get the runners over,” he said. “I just want to do my job and not just go for home runs. When I’m ahead in the count, I’m swinging if it’s my pitch. I’m not walking often because I’m going for pitches around the zone and making contact out of them.”
In a game against Monterey earlier this season, Pena hit a three-run home run. And he had a solo shot that accounted for the only run of the game in a 1-0 victory over Pacific Grove on April 30. The 16-year-old sees how important the mental side of the game is and how it correlates with individual and team success.
“For sure the team that makes less mental mistakes is going to win more often,” Pena said. “I see how valuable the mental side of baseball is now because our coaches really coach that (aspect of the game) up.”
Pena grew up with Chavez and Mingus playing in Hollister Little League, and they continued to develop and mature to become impact players for San Benito. Pena and Chavez also play on the same club team, Dub Baseball in Morgan Hill. In the off-season, Pena trained at Dub’s facility three times a week, which prepared him to have a breakout season. Even though Pena has stood out for his hitting this season, he was known for his pitching growing up. A few arm problems have relegated him to hitting only since he entered high school, but he’s hopeful a couple of bullpen sessions will get his arm ready for any potential innings that might come his way.
After a May 19 contest against Pacific Grove, the Balers have three games remaining until the Pacific Coast League tournament. They’re a virtual lock for the Central Coast Section playoffs, and depending on how they finish the season, they could be placed in the Open Division with the same West Catholic League teams that thumped them at the start of the season.
“Our overall attitude is to keep winning and go as far as we can,” Pena said. “I think this team has a great chemistry which will help us in the big games.”
In a contest earlier this season, Pena saw two hittable pitches and produced hits both times. Before the season started, his goal was to hit near the top of the lineup and end up being one of the best hitters on the team. He’s accomplished his goals and then some, and looks to stay consistent in his physical and mental approach.