Every year, the San Benito High baseball team plays a tough non-league schedule, wins or contends for a league championship and puts itself in a position to win a Central Coast Section championship.
This season should be no different. The only question is, will the Haybalers finally be celebrating the program’s first-ever CCS title in the last week of May, or will they run up against another team that denies them yet again? First things first: San Benito plans on winning another Pacific Coast League Gabilan Division championship.
“It’ll be interesting to see what happens,” Balers coach Billy Aviles said.
No Gabilan Division team outside of Palma lit it up before league play started last week, including the Balers, who entered the week 2-4, though all four of their losses came to teams that will be vying for Open Division playoff berths. San Benito returns north of a half-dozen players who either started or saw significant innings from a team that lost in the CCS Division II championship game to Sequoia High last June.
That includes pitcher Jackson Pace, a USC-signee, sweet-swinging lefty infielder/pitcher Matt Pena and fellow junior standout Breyon Chavez, who hit a two-run homer in a 6-0 win over Gilroy High on March 11. Pace and Wyatt Barton will form a nice 1-2 starting rotation, and Aviles has several other pitchers he can use for a spot start, long relief or save situation.
Pena is the typical crafty lefty who can hit his spots and has decent movement on his pitches, while Mateo Reyes, Ricky Madrigal, D.J. Lopes and Hayden Corona have all had their moments early in the season. Lopes’ main position is catcher and he definitely has the goods to rifle down runners trying to steal if his pitchers put him in a good position to do so.
In a 8-1 win over Gilroy in the league opener on March 9, Lopes threw out two baserunners at second base and got the force at first base after a pitch went to the backstop on a swinging third strike. Lopes even laid down a sacrifice bunt that helped lead to a run from the cleanup spot.
“That’s the thing with catchers, you can go 0 for 3 and give us the win by doing other things,” Aviles said. “D.J. is a good situational guy which is why we have him hitting in the four (or five) hole. He’s a leader and handles pitchers very well.”
Center fielder Adrian Ruiz returns to bat leadoff, Pena second and Jaden Mingus three. Pena had a two-run single in a 6-4 loss to Live Oak on March 14, and Mateo Reyes had an RBI single in the sixth inning.
Nate Martinez had two hits and two runs scored against the Acorns, Brandon Gatson also finished with two hits and Alex Valencia has a solid bat as San Benito has shown scoring runs shouldn’t be a problem—unless it runs into a top-tier West Catholic League team.
The Balers were held to four hits against Valley Christian and just two hits against Mitty, both shutout losses. However, with Lopes behind the dish, Chavez at shortstop and Mingus at second base, San Benito looks to be strong up the middle, key for any team aiming for a deep playoff run.
Aviles’ son, Billy, has also been solid defensively at third base.
“We’re pretty solid defensively, strong up the middle and with Adrian in center, he sucks everything up,” Aviles said. “Anything in the air he gets to. The key to a good ballclub is pitching and defense, and it starts up the middle and we’re very strong up the middle.”
Aviles scheduled only the best opponents for non-league games, knowing they will prepare the team later down the line. A season-opening 25-2 loss—no, that’s not a typo—to Wilcox was an aberration in that San Benito didn’t have its full complement of players with seven pitchers combining to issue 16 walks.
Aviles likes how his team battled in the two-game set to open league play against Gilroy. In the March 9 game, Mustangs starter Quinn Larson struck out four of the first 10 batters he faced. However, the second time through the order, San Benito had five hits which would prove to be a harbinger in the game en route to the 8-1 victory.
“Larson was tough,” Aviles said. “He had some giddyup on his fastball, but the kids kept battling, pushed a couple of runs across and got it done. We got some guys on, moved them over and it all worked out.”
Pace started and had five strikeouts in just two innings, Pena went the next three and Reyes finished up the final two frames.
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org