EDINBURG — When Edinburg Vela senior ace AJ Sotelo suffered a season-ending shoulder injury one month into the season, the SaberCats turned to an all-hands-on-deck approach at the pitcher position.
“AJ was a big part of our team. He was our donkey; he was our hoss,” Edinburg Vela senior catcher Jaime Perez Jr. said. “This kid was on the way to being an all-state pitcher. Me and the guys talked and said, ‘We can’t let it affect us. Freshman, sophomore, junior, it doesn’t matter — anybody who takes the mound, we have to duplicate what he can do.’ That same energy gives us a chance, and that’s what we talked about — we have to do what he did for us on the mound.”
The SaberCats (16-3, 13-3) have done exactly that — maintained a high-level of play on the diamond led by the play from Perez, their four-year starter.
Vela finished the regular season as the No. 2 seed in District 31-6A — one of South Texas’ toughest districts along with state-ranked La Joya High and perennial power PSJA High.
A Tarleton commit, Perez is batting .538 this season with 28 hits, 25 RBIs, 17 runs scored and one home run. He also made his first appearance on the mound during the SaberCats’ district finale against Mission High, allowing just one hit and one earned run, while striking out seven batters in five innings.
“He’s just a big-time competitor. He competes in everything that he does, and what more could you ask for?” Edinburg Vela baseball head coach Jaime Perez Sr. said. “Even though he is my son — it is what it is — I know that guy is a straight up gamer. He puts the No. 5 on and it’s business time and he does a good job of that.”
Although the SaberCats are sophomore-heavy this season, senior shortstop Carlos Peña was another key player to step up in Sotelo’s absence.
Once he began pitching in mid-March, Peña produced a 5-0 record in District 31-6A play with a 0.66 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 32 innings of action.
“Carlos at short, he’s another guy who’s chewed up a lot of innings for us. When AJ went down, he took the bull by the horns,” coach Perez said. “He’s carving up dudes and throwing really, really well for us, and that’s big for us.”
With the regular season in the books, the SaberCats now shift their focus to the postseason — a place the younger Perez knows plenty well with two playoff runs under his belt.
As a freshman, he started at catcher on a stacked Vela team that reached Round 4 of the postseason with playoff series wins over Harlingen High, Eagle Pass and Los Fresnos, before falling to San Antonio Churchill. As a sophomore, Perez helped the SaberCats sweep the McAllen High Bulldogs in a Round 1 marquee matchup between two of the Rio Grande Valley’s top baseball programs.
“It takes perfection. One little mess up can change a game in a heartbeat,” he said about postseason play. “Going back to my freshman year in Game 1 versus Los Fresnos in Round 3, two outs, full count, I drop a pop fly behind the plate. Next pitch and — boom! — we’re down. Every little thing is going to count, and I feel like if we’re perfect with the road we got, we can make some noise in the playoffs.”
The SaberCats are set to face District 32-6A’s No. 3 seed San Benito (13-10, 9-5) in Round 1 of the Class 6A playoffs. Game 1 of their best-of-three series is scheduled for a 7 p.m. Friday start at Edinburg Vela High School. Game 2 will be played at 1 p.m. Saturday at San Benito High School, with Game 3, if necessary, to start 30 minutes after the conclusion of Game 2.