The San Benito High softball team enters Saturday’s 1pm Central Coast Section playoff quarterfinal game at Mitty brimming with confidence.
Yes, the Haybalers know they’re up against a formidable opponent which beat them in the season-opener 4-1 on March 1. However, San Benito is banking on the fact that it has made dramatic strides since the start of the season, which they think will translate into a different outcome on Saturday.
“We feel comfortable where we’re at,” Balers coach Andrew Barragan said. “We’re right where we should be in the Open Division. I feel comfortable playing Mitty again. We’re just ready, man. I think it’ll be a different outcome.”
The No. 6 seed Balers (18-7) know they’ll have to play much better to beat the No. 3 seed Monarchs (24-3) in the rematch. Yet they have reason for confidence after thumping Notre Dame-Salinas—the No. 2 seed behind top seed St. Francis in the Open Division—in the penultimate game of the league season.
“From the first game to where we are now, we’re a totally different team,” Barragan said, referring to the fact that sophomore defensive whiz Mia Philips had yet to transition to shortstop and freshman Grace Peffley wasn’t in center field, where she has emerged as a difference-maker defensively. “It’s a game of adjustments. How different they are, I’m not sure.”
Balers ace Sophia Mariottini allowed nine hits but just two earned runs in the season-opener, and Barragan is counting on the junior right-hander to keep the Mitty bats at bay. Mariottini has improved her off-speed pitch, which has helped keep batters off balance.
“Her out pitch has been the off-speed and she’s been getting better every game,” Barragan said. “If Sophie pitches the way she’s capable of, we’ll be sitting pretty. A lot of it falls on my shoulders calling every pitch, so I have to be at my best as well.”
San Benito’s lineup has been prolific, scoring nine runs or more in 13 of its 25 games. Unlike most high school softball coaches, Barragan more often than not will have his hitters swing rather than lay down a sacrifice bunt with one out.
He sees little point in sacrificing an out to advance a runner a base which will leave the opponent needing just an out to get out of the inning. Instead, Barragan has confidence his batters can put the ball in play or, better yet, produce a hit.
“This team reminds me of the Phillies back in the day when they had Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton, and would just pick up the club and swing it,” Barragan said. “There’s no finesse about this team, but we can play small ball and the short game if we need to. It’s just not our game this year because we’ve got girls who can swing it.”
The batting lineup order has been Maddie Bermudez, Seryna Esparza, Giana Perez, Philips, Emma Gutierrez, Peffley, Dominique Oliveira, Mariottini and Jaelynn Corona. While Bermudez and Peffley can lay down a bunt at any point, they’ve shown the ability to swing it, too.
Bermudez has been key because she’s the tablesetter.
“Once we get Maddie on, it’s almost guaranteed we’re moving her over or counting on Seryna for a base hit or gapper,” Barragan said.
Esparza was moved up to No. 2 in the order, reminding Barragan of another power lefty hitter the team had in Callee Heen. All Esparza has done is post an on-base percentage north of .600. Perez, a Sonoma State-signee, hit over .500 in league play and Gutierrez filled the void at third base after Shelly Cavazos got injured.
Peffley turned into a “stud little freshman,” Barragan said, and Oliveira had a breakout season at the plate.
“Grace hit almost .500 in league and is more of a slapper,” Barragan said. “She can one punch it to the ground and just beat it out from the six hole. And Dom is another .500 hitter in league who really came into her own this year because she’s always been DP’d (someone else hitting for her) in the past and boy she got a little tired of just catching and really stepped up with her bat.”
Mariottini can be counted on to make contact and put the ball in play, and Corona has a high on-base percentage.
“Jae is a pesky lefty type hitter,” Barragan said. “She’s going to dink one over to third base and she also gets hit a lot. You have her at the nine hole and we’ve got a solid lineup.”
While the Mitty matchup is just one game, there are bigger implications than the usual playoff opener. If the Balers win, they earn an automatic berth into the CIF NorCal Regional playoffs, which would be a first for the proud program. One thing is for certain: things have come full circle for the Balers, and the time has come to see just how far they’ve come since March 1.
“The girls reminded me (Thursday) when we lost against Mitty back in freaking March, that I told them to remember this feeling because we’re going to see them in the playoffs,” Barragan said. “I don’t remember that at all, but these girls remember everything. It sounds like something I might say, and here we are. It’s going to be a tough test, but we’re up for the challenge and this is the team to do it.”
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org