It has not been terribly merry for the baseball Cougars these days, as they had started the District 31-5A schedule on a 1-5 slide, 5-14 overall. But they showed Thursday that they’re not going to call it a season just yet. Getting the famous dugout “Bat Jam” routine cranking early and late, with a near fatal lapse in between, North survived a wild one on the road for a 10-7 win against EHS.

In game that was reminiscent of last year’s 5-4 extra-inning comeback win over EHS to end the first round, North did it again. With sharp bunting and running, plus solid starting pitching from senior Mark Esquivel, North jumped on a sluggish Bobcat nine that suffered through a miserable night in the outfield, grabbing a 4-0 lead into the fourth. EHS came in at 4-2 in 31-5A (13-9 total) and could ill afford a second straight loss after having fallen to Harlingen South Tuesday; it rallied big time in the sixth and after pushing across four runs, was up 7-5.

With team leader Noel Cruz chanting the cheers from the dugout and also scoring the tying run with a furious, dusty home-plate slide, the Coogs got up off the deck for five markers in the top of the seventh. When reliever Nick Escobar put the Bobcats away in the last at-bat, the team had gained a much-needed victory to close the first half of the league slate on the upswing

“That’s how you fight, we came back and ended the losing,” said the junior Cruz afterward, after he’d spent much of the night pounding his bat to the beat on a wooden box and getting his teammates fired up. “There are always going to be changes during a game, so when we got behind…we’d been a little comfortable I guess, but we didn’t give up and everyone did their job.”

For a program that has become accustomed to playoff trips just about every year, 2010 has been a downer; the Coogs had allowed 59 runs in five lopsided league defeats coming in, and truly needed to come with their best Thursday or face the prospect of being totally out of the race at halftime. That they were able to make it happen is a testament to the never-say-die spirit their star third baseman was talking about.

Coach Nick Cantu withstood the heart-stopping back-and-forth action quite well considering his recent health issues. He said that despite the slow start, the Coogs did not fade.

“It was a team effort and we really needed it,” remarked the veteran skipper to his team. “We have to stay together and believe in ourselves. Nobody believes in us but ourselves, and I know we can still make the playoffs. Now we just have to take it one game at a time and keep making good things happen.”

TOPSY TURVY

North started the marathon effort with some sharp Small Ball, manufacturing a run in the second after Escobar walked, went to second on one of four successful Cougar bunts on the night, and to third on a wild pitch. Catcher Albert Flores bounced a single past second for a 1-0 lead.

The Coogs got two more in the next inning as Joel De los Santos ripped a double to start things and Jeremy Salinas lost a fly ball off the bat of Esquivel for a run. Cruz bunted Esquivel to third and then Andrew Arteaga tagged EHS soph Sammy Alvarado for an RBI hit. Alvarado, the club’s top hurler, struggled to get ahead of the hitters, though he battled to a complete-game performance and would figure prominently in the offensive onslaught down the road.

Down 3-0, the Bobcats had failed to find the approach to good at-bats, hitting the ball in the air too often on a windy night, drawing the ire of Coach Robert Valdez, who scored his charges for being flat in the early innings.

When North was about to blow the doors off, however, Alvarado had the key antidote. In that third inning, with North up three, the right-hander came from a 3-0 count to Edgar Cordon, the dangerous soph slugger, to fan him looking, later getting Escobar on a fly to left to end the frame.

Behind 5-1 into the fifth, and still having trouble locating fly balls on defense, EHS rebounded to score two as Christian Alvarado launched a prodigious triple to right-center that clanked off the bottom of the wall and chased Ricky Vazquez and Salinas home to make it 5-3.

Esquivel had been tough to that point, but he exited in favor of Escobar after Alvarado’s drive, and the junior righty retired the next two hitters to put out the fire.

Sammy Alvarado got the Coogs in the sixth one-two-three (sort of), thanks to a pickoff of courtesy runner Gus Maldonado (two steals on the night) off third base.

“Don’t ease up, men, don’t ease up!” hollered Cruz to his mates, but it was too late; the ‘Cats had awakened. In the bottom of the sixth they sent eight hitters to the dish, including first baseman Carlos Pena, who collected three singles Thursday. His RBI, after Lee Rios had singled and stolen second, cut the margin to one.

The ‘Cats then climbed into the catbird seat at 7-5, with Sammy Alvarado crashing a two-run triple for the lead and Christian Alvarado adding a ringing single for another run. All of a sudden, the Bat Jam was silent, and it was EHS noise dominating the airwaves.

Here one might have expected North to fold the tent and trudge homeward. But instead, the Coogs batted around in their half of the seventh with four base hits good for five runs. Esquivel smacked a first-pitch single off a tiring Alvarado and Cruz skied to the outfield, where again, no one could locate the ball. After Arteaga grounded out, Cordon, who also had a tremendous game defensively at first, delivered a two-run single for the tie. When Keith Silva came up clutch with a long triple, two runs came in. John Gonzaba, who like Cordon was excellent with the glove Thursday at second base, clinked another single for the 10-7 advantage that held up.

Escobar retired the Bobcats in order in the bottom of the last inning, getting a scoop at first from Cordon on the final putout of the 3-hour-plus slugfest.

Cruz suggested that from here on out, things are going to be different for the Coogs.

“We’re never out of it, never!” he insisted emphatically. “We’re going to surprise people, and we can go 9-5 and make it. We just have to keep it going.”

NOTES: The standings in 31-5A looked like this heading into the week: P-SJ-A first at 7-0, with Pharr North, Harlingen South, EHS, and P-SJ-A Memorial all in third with 4-3 marks. Harlingen was 3-4 with North at 2-5, and Econ dragging its feet at 0-7.