Ahead of the program's first regional postseason appearance since 2002, Glendale Community College Coach Chris Cicuto was worried about his team's layoff of more than a week between its regular-season finale and its playoff opener.
Alas, he conceded that although he was worried about so much time off, it was good for his group of Vaqueros that had seemingly battled injuries all season long to have some time to heal up.
Even before the season began, Cicuto lost a pair of possible starters. Then there was Eric Matranga, who blew out his knee during a collision with a teammate. There was Scott Hong, who was having a standout season before it was ended with a broken fibula and a dislocated ankle. And a pair of shoulder injuries to Matt McCallister and Nick Woodward also left the team with holes to fill.
And in reply to the oft asked question of whether a player is hurt or injured, sophomore catcher Erik Suarez could say yes to both. Suarez, the Vaqueros' starting catcher, is currently dealing with a broken index finger and a fractured left hand.
But there's never been a hole to fill at catcher this season.
"He never made it a big deal, ever," Cicuto says. "Everyday he's saying he's fine, he wants to play."
And play Suarez has, contributing mightily to a memorable GCC season that saw them win the Western State Conference South Division title before advancing to today's Super Regional.
Suarez, a Burroughs High graduate, has been a valuable defensive presence as a backstop, a solid hitter in the No. 3 hole, handled a brilliant pitching staff and perhaps just as valuable as any of his contributions has been his ability to captain his team through his perseverance and his ability to exemplify toughness and the role of a team player.
"He's not only tough, but he's mature enough to take on the responsibility as a captain," Cicuto says. "Erik is the type who stepped up."
Through 34 regular-season games, Suarez batted .308 with 25 runs and 18 runs batted in. They're solid numbers, sure, but hardly the kind that jump off the page. Suarez' true worth and contribution to the Vaqueros' cause is much more than that and often times far removed from statistics.
"Just a leader," says reliever Michael Noteware of Suarez as a teammate. "Just a guy who you know is gonna do his job. You don't have to worry about Erik."
Indeed, on a championship team that's dealt with plenty of uncertainty, in large part due to injury, Suarez has been a constant behind the plate, despite suffering through an injury that quite certainly should have kept him off the diamond.
Nonetheless, Suarez can't tell you when it happened. And he's not sure how it happened, either.
"I think it was when I was catching and I caught a ball wrong," he says. "[I think it happened] a couple weeks before [Western State Conference play]."
But he's not sure. The one certainty is that his parents, Glendale college trainers and doctors don't want him to play. But the only two games he's missed all season have been because Cicuto simply gave him a day off.
"It feels like I let my team down if I don't play," Suarez says. "It's the worst feeling in the world."
With the Vaqueros currently amid one of the program's finest seasons of all-time, Suarez has never hesitated to keep playing and has done everything possible to soldier through the pain. He's seen the GCC trainers religiously, tried different wraps — currently he's using a thick gel pad that is then taped up — and finally, just recently, went to see a doctor.
"I was scared they were going to tell me I couldn't play," Suarez says.
And, according to him, that's the news he got. So, for now at least, he's putting off going back. For now, bum hand or not, it's business as usual, which encompasses taking good at-bats, catching a stellar pitching staff and captaining a Vaqueros run that's been full of highlights.
Highlights aren't exactly what Suarez is all about, though.
Of his 32 regular season hits, 27 were singles. He led the team with 26 walks and 12 hit-by-pitches and a .476 on-base percentage. They're numbers that are hardly flashy, but plenty effective. And in that way, quite symbolic of the player they represent.
"He takes the biggest at-bats on the team as far as I'm concerned," Cicuto says. "The stats don't show that, but those quality at-bats mean a lot to the team."
Stats do show that the GCC pitching staff has been exemplary this season. Suarez, who's made just three errors all season, has received for a staff that's posted a 3.44 earned-run average and has allowed an opposing batting average of .238.
"He has everything you need when he's back there," Noteware says. "You don't need to worry about him, he's gonna do his job."
Indeed, a reliance on Suarez as the other half of the battery has been just one of many intangibles he's brought to the Vaqueros' cause.
"Everybody in our pitching staff trusts him behind the plate," clean-up hitter Sako Chapjian says.
Perhaps the most telling stat is the 24-13 record that the Vaqueros bring into today's postseason contest. At the end of ballgame, that's simply how Suarez defines his success when all is said and done.
"That's the most important thing at the end of the day," Suarez says. "I get kinda mad if I go 0 for four, but if we win, I'm happy. Deep down in my mind, that's the only thing that matters."
That sentiment, as much as any other, is likely the reason Cicuto calls Suarez an "attitude-guy."
Cicuto also calls his current crop of Vaqueros the most talented bunch he's ever had, but recognizes that it's an overall attitude of playing through tribulation and building chemistry that has brought them all together to the point that they are at.
"What it comes down to is these guys giving their heart and soul, that's character," Cicuto says. "And when you see the best players on the team doing it, that's contagious."
And Suarez' attitude and approach has most assuredly been contagious.
"Everybody's seeing how he still plays," Chapjian says. "When I see that, I think to myself, if he's out there giving his all every day and he's injured and I'm healthy, I should at least be doing the same."
It's an aspect of his injury not lost on Suarez. He admits baseball in general has always been motivation enough, but this season more than ever has been a special one.
"It means a lot to me to tough it out and just kind of set an example for my teammates that if I can play through this they can play through whatever they're going through. I think it's just always been my attitude. I just love this game," he says. "This is the best team I've ever been on. It's been super fun. I've always looked forward to playing baseball, but I look forward to going to school, just to see my teammates and hang out. We all have this brotherly bond."
When facing elimination in last week's regional against Cypress, the Vaqueros went down to their last at-bat before pulling out a nailbiting 9-8 win in the third and final game of the series. It was one in a cavalcade of monumental victories for the 2011 Vaqueros. It was emblematic of the reason Suarez won't relent in his undying will to show up for every game behind the plate and it was symbolic of the attitude that has spread through the Glendale clubhouse.
"We're never, never dead," Suarez says. "We just have that never-give-up attitude."
It's an attitude that Suarez might not have created, but one that he's certainly exemplified.