It wouldn’t be a San Benito-Palma baseball game without some staredowns and smack talking. Their pivotal Pacific Coast League Gabilan Division game on May 3 had all of that, but it was the Haybalers who prevailed in a white-knuckle affair, 5-4, to gain the inside track for the league championship.
Adrian Ruiz’s walk-off double with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning improved San Benito to 16-2 in Gabilan Division play and dropped Palma to 14-3. For the Haybalers, the formula is simple: two wins in their final three division games clinches at least a share of the championship and three victories cements an outright title irregardless of what the Chieftains do.
“Both teams battled, it came down to the end and we came out on top,” Balers coach Billy Aviles said. “Hollister-Palma is a good rivalry and has always been a big rivalry.”
Of that, there is no doubt. San Benito won two of the three meetings against Palma this season, with each contest decided by one run. Ruiz embraced the situation when he came up to bat with Mateo Reyes at second base with one out in the last half of the seventh.
The last time the teams played—a 3-2 Palma win on March 31—Ruiz made the last out. This time, he ended the game with a powerful swing, sending the ball to the gap in right-center field.
“I missed a pitch earlier that I should’ve probably driven to the outfield, but on the last pitch I was more aggressive and didn’t let that next fastball get by me,” said Ruiz, who was hitting ninth and playing center field. “I was looking for a ball to gap and I was trying to send us home with a win. I was the last out the last time we played, so to get the walk-off hit felt pretty good.”
The teams got into a little verbal jousting during and after the game, because it wouldn’t be Balers-Chieftains baseball without a little extra spice. San Benito, though, has bragging rights for 2022, especially if they clinch the league title as expected.
The Balers would need to dig deep after Gavin Ducker hit a three-run home run in the top of the fifth to give Palma its first lead of the game, 4-3. San Benito came up empty in the bottom half before scoring single runs in the final two frames for the comeback victory.
Prior to Ruiz’s heroics, D.J. Lopes came through with a run-scoring single to make it 4-4 in the sixth. The play was made possible because Alex Valencia was running on the pitch, drawing the Palma shortstop to cover second base for the possible tag.
However, Lopes hit the ball to the vacated spot between second and third base, allowing Jaden Mingus to score. Brandon Flores started for San Benito and was tremendous, striking out six and allowing just one run over four innings.
The right-hander utilizes a combination of a three-quarter arm slot and side-arm and imparts tremendous spin on his pitches.
“Brandon was good for us last year and he’s been good for us this year,” Aviles said. “A lot of the hype goes to Jackson (Pace) as a USC commit, but we also have Wyatt (Barton) who has put together a good year, and Brandon is right there with them. Brandon has had a lot of high quality innings lately, high pressure innings and he comes through. He’s funky, has the three-quarters motion and his ball runs in and out to keep hitters off-balance.”
Pace pitched the fifth and freshman sensation Trent Roach tossed two shutout innings of relief to continue his ascension. Roach has accumulated more innings as the season has progressed, a testament to his continued development and maturation.
He’s actually a strong-armed catcher as well, with a sub 2 second pop time on steals to second base, according to Aviles. To give perspective, the Philadelphia Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto leads all MLB catchers with a pop time of 1.89.
Pop time measures the distance from the moment the pitch hits the catcher’s mitt to the moment the ball reaches the fielder’s projected receiving point at the center of the base.
Offensively, San Benito finished with 12 hits and had some quality at-bats with Ruiz roping a run-scoring double in the second inning.
“I think Adrian squared up four balls today,” Aviles said. “He had a great day.”
As did No. 8 hitter Ricky Madrigal, who had a single and double. Lopes, the team’s starting catcher, has been solid all season and his bat has been resurgent of late. He had a pair of singles and two RBI and reached base three times.
San Benito was solid up and down the order. Mingus had two hits, Matt Pena had a single and two walks and Mateo Reyes drew two walks.
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]