After the first of two games last week with Edison, student trainers iced Steven Martinez’s lower leg.
“Shin splints,” he said, referring to an injury of the connective muscle tissue surrounding the tibia. “My shins hurt, but I gotta take care of myself.”
Part of the process. But it didn’t slow Martinez down. Not even a little.
In the top of the fourth inning, Tiger Eleazar Aguirre hit the ball low but hard off a pitch from Apache Jake Harrell. Harrell had just struck out Aguirre’s teammate Guillermo Galaviz, one of 14 for the night on March 26.
Then Martinez, playing shortstop, blasted into the infield, accelerating like a modified engine after a shot of nitrous oxide. He plucked Aquirre’s drive from the air and threw the ball to Alec Flores on first for the second out. Harrell gave Martinez a slight nod, while Aguirre headed back to the dugout and his teammate, pitcher Josh Allison, walked to home plate, bat in hand.
Allison, who at that point had given up four hits for two runs, also hit the ball hard and low. But Martinez staged a repeat performance. Again, he executed the same shot-from-a-gun trifecta of sprint, grab and throw to Flores.
Three up, three down.
Sanger’s varsity baseball team, 12-2 overall, won the game by shutout, 6-0. Martinez doubled in the bottom of the fourth and stole third. He didn’t score because Allison struck out Harrell in the next at-bat for the third out.
“That’s the third shutout in a row,” coach David Cuellar said after the game. “We’ve tacked on, on average, 10 or more hits per game the last couple of weeks. There’s a confidence that we can get the hits, steal the bases.
“Hitting is so mental. It’s contagious when people put the ball into play.”
Cuellar said his two pitchers, Harrell and Flores, have helped raise his team’s performance with their substantive skills on the mound. And when asked to comment on his shortstop’s contribution, he said, “You make plays like that, and that tells the pitcher, ‘I can do anything.’”
Flores acknowledged as much earlier in the season, saying he knows his team has his back when he’s on the mound. He engineered the 8-6 win against San Joaquin Memorial on March 15 despite every attempt by the Panthers to derail his concentration.
“Our defense plays a huge role, a major role,” Martinez said. “Our defense and our offense make our pitching much more comfortable.”
And if Neil Greenberg’s assessment is correct that the importance of the pitcher, catcher and batter continues to increase in the major league, the already high responsibility felt by Harrell, Flores and catcher Darrin Herring could grow, by extension, as the game evolves. Greenberg, who writes for the Fancy Stats blog and the Washington Post, said that more than a third of all major league plate appearances end in a home run, walk or strikeout, “the highest rate of all time.”
But that’s the majors. The Apaches provided ample excitement on the field.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, Sanger turned on the fireworks. Ryan Esparza singled. He was third in the rotation that inning, and Sanger already had two outs. Alex Rodriguez had been thrown out, and Herring hit the ball deep into center field where it was caught.
Edison’s coach, Cliff Rold, pulled Allison at that point in the game and had him switch with Diego Munoz. Munoz warmed up and was rewarded with Flores at bat. After a pitch or two, Esparza flipped on the nitrous or Red Bull or whatever and not only stole second base but third. A series of photographs showed Esparza start a leaping dive from about a dozen feet away, reaching the bag a split second before Tigers’ third baseman Michael Fung caught the ball.
Intense to say the least.
Esparza, who like Martinez earned the nickname Flash or Marvel’s version, Quicksilver, that night, said he’d never done a double steal before.
“I’ve stolen second and third,” he said, after he and his teammates had cleaned up the field and put all their gear away. “Separately. Not together.”
He wasn’t as impressed as I was. “Sort of happens every day,” Esparza said, responding to a question about the accomplishments of his team. “Today was a good day. We just have good vibes.”
The rest of that inning continued with the thrill level unabated. Flores’ subsequent single sent Esparza home. Then Nathan Padilla got up to bat, and he, too, singled.
In the top of the sixth, Harrell fanned the first two batters. The third batter, Galaviz, singled. But Aguirre, batter No. 4, got thrown out on the next play.
Again in the bottom of the sixth with two outs, Harrell, the third in Apache rotation to step up to the plate, singled. Then Rodriguez followed with another single. Herring subsequently singled into left field, and Josiah Covarrubias, running for Harrell, slid into home plate, making it 4-0.
Esparza wasn’t done for the night and singled, sending A-Rod home. Flores, up next, singled, too, sending Herring home. Score 6-0.
“It happens,” said outfielder Alex Avalos. He mentioned he and his fellow Apaches would shoot for a repeat in the March 29 game against the Tigers. “We’ve got the pitchers. He (Harrell) could go high in the draft after college. (Harrell signed with Fresno State.) Alec, he’s a top pitcher, too.”
The Apaches made a statement again March 29, winning 12-1.
Avalos played hard that first game against Edison. He didn’t get a home run, although he said he’s more of a singles or doubles kind of player. But he played with that high energy, that intensity that appears to infuse the Apaches this year.
“It’s fun,” he said. “I mean I grew up with all these guys. We’re just working. It’s fun being out here. And why not? I may not play at the next level.”
Avalos is a senior, and this will be his final season.
He and the other Apaches appear to want to make it memorable.