The Green Batters successfully defended their UAAP crown. But, the co-captains of the team told The GAME themselves: the journey wasn’t easy.
The last time the DLSU Men’s Baseball Team, also known as the Green Batters, won the UAAP Senior’s Baseball Tournament was in Season 81. The next time they raised the trophy was in Season 85.
And yet, they are back-to-back champions.
While this sounds like a curious case, the explanation is actually quite simple: the pandemic took away three UAAP seasons from the collegiate baseball community.
For context, the second half of UAAP Season 82 was canceled due to the pandemic. The two succeeding Seasons, 83 and 84, saw a more limited version of the tournament, with only selected sports permitted to come back. Baseball wasn’t one of them.
But, the clouds finally parted in Season 85. UAAP baseball was back, and so were the Green Batters.
From the top of the world to a standstill
UAAP Season 81 gave the Green Batters a fairytale of a championship.
It was the top of the ninth inning in a do-or-die game in the finals series between archrival schools De La Salle University and Ateneo de Manila University. The scores were tied, 9-9. Kiko Gesmundo blasted a two-run homer that gave La Salle the edge, and after closing the bottom of the ninth with a crisp double play, DLSU won the championship.
That was in April 2019.
As the UAAP schools prepared for Season 82, the Green Batters were the kings of the diamond, getting ready to defend their crown. But, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, any plans for back-to-back championships had to be put on hold.
Green Batter Vince Flores, who was just about to play his rookie season before it was canceled, recalls this period of inactivity somberly, saying, “Sobrang na-down na lahat. ‘Di na namin na-expect na makakalaro pa kami.”
“All coach was saying was, ‘Konting ‘antay na lang, and they’re going to let us play again.’ Pero, he was saying that for three years.”
And it was a long wait for the Green Batters. Familiar faces had left the team, and new faces were coming in. Meanwhile some players, with the option to move on, still decided to wait out the pandemic for one last chance at UAAP glory, including veteran players Iggy Escaño and Julius Diaz.
With the team that DLSU had, though they couldn’t train together in person, they resorted to conditioning programs through video meetings.
Joshua Pineda, who was a rookie in DLSU’s championship-winning team in Season 81, likened it to the at-home workout videos. And although they were helpful in keeping the team fit, it surely could not compare to training with teammates in the flesh, and as time went by, the players craved something more.
So, when baseball teams were finally given the green light to come back and compete, the excitement could not be contained.
“Noong nag-announce sila coach na pwede na kaming bumalik, sobrang excited kami. Kung baga, gigil na gigil na talaga kami,” Joshua recalled.
Making up for lost time
Even though everyone felt the same excitement to come back to training, it was not the romantic return they might have hoped for.
There are things that a sports team loses when they spend three years without any form of in-person training. And when the Green Batters reunited, they struggled to gel together as a team right away. Although this was to be expected, especially with a roster filled with rookies, it was a challenge they nonetheless had to overcome together.
“Sobrang bilis ng pangyayari, so ang isang naging problema sa team ay ang chemistry namin sa start,” Vince explained.
But, as the training sessions passed by, along with team bonding sessions and get-togethers, they eventually grew closer to one another.
However, this was not the only challenge that the Green Batters would have to face before the upcoming UAAP baseball tournament. Due to a lack of facilities, their team started their on-field training relatively late in comparison to the other teams. And when they finally did start training, they had to go all the way to Laguna from their campus in Manila to do so.
On top of the long commute that undoubtedly took a lot of energy from the players, when training in Laguna, the Green Batters were also limited to a batting cage and sharing a football field. But even so, the players were determined to train. After all, they had waited a long time to do so. Thus, they made the most out of it, Joshua and Vince both recalling that many of the players refused to take a break, even over Holy Week, to make sure they got the hours of training in.
But the struggles didn’t end there. Apart from these, in those early months since their return to the field, the Green Batters were also not yet complete as a team. As a result, they were unable to join the pre-season tournament before UAAP Season 85.
“Before the season started, we weren’t the favorites,” Vince emphasized. “They didn’t really have scouting reports on us and we didn’t join the pre-season tournaments so they didn’t expect how we would play as a team.”
With the setbacks they faced as a team, the Green Batters were coming into Season 85, not as the same kings of the diamond that they were after Season 81. They were a different team altogether, but still, with the same goal: to win another championship.
The road back to the finals
The UAAP Season 85 baseball tournament was DLSU’s first competition since the pandemic, and the players were delighted to finally be back after three years of waiting.
“Excited na excited kami,” Joshua expressed, now as the co-captain of the team. “Kung baga, parang matagal na kaming hindi nakalabas sa kulungan, tapos noong pagkalabas namin, sobrang sarap.”
But, as with their training, excitement didn’t mean it was going to be easy. Joshua likened their team to a diesel engine. In most of their games, he recalled, the Green Batters had to work hard to chase the lead from behind. His co-captain Vince shared the same sentiments, recalling that their first game was one of the most challenging.
“Medyo rough pa din ‘yung teamwork ng isa’t isa, at lalo na sa defense, kailangan talaga ng chemistry,” Vince explained.
Even so, they managed to operate in full swing pretty quickly. The Green Batters went on to finish round one of the season accumulating just one loss. This kept them high in the standings along with the University of the Philippines and announced themselves as one of the favorites to win the title once again.
The second round of eliminations proved to be more of a challenge, with DLSU racking up two losses. “Everyone was expecting us to be the top team, so we were pressured to perform and we forgot that we should play naturally,” Vince shared.
In their final match of the eliminations, the Green Batters faced the finals-bound University of the Philippines and needed a win for a chance to defend their title. Towards the final stages of the game, things weren’t looking so great for the defending champions, after a tough seventh inning allowed UP to score five runs to take a two-run lead.
But, in the bottom of the ninth inning, Joseph Alcontin closed the game with a walk-off hit to score JR Samuel to book La Salle’s ticket back to the finals.
Back to the finals, four years later
UP opened the best-of-three finals series on a strong note, as early in Game 1, the Fighting Maroons took an 8-4 lead over the Green Batters. But, if any team knew how to win from behind, it was DLSU.
In the middle of the fourth inning, co-captain Joshua Pineda took over the pitching duties, despite a minor injury to his finger, and standing over the mound, the energy of the game had shifted. In the following inning, the Green Batters found their momentum to score five runs to take the lead, 9-8. And though they didn’t score any more runs after this, they didn’t need to. Pineda’s pitching only allowed two hits and no runs from the Maroons to close Game 1 on top.
Joshua truly played his heart out, executing the role of first-line-of-defense to near perfection. And his performance came out of his confidence and trust in his team. “Hindi ako na-pressure sa Game 1 kasi may tiwala ako sa mga teammates ko, ang lakas ng depensa namin, at ginawa ko lang ang trabaho ko — kaya kami panalo,” he expressed.
This confidence carried on to the next. In fact, after taking the first win, co-captain Vince Flores felt, in his gut, that the Green Batters could close the series in Game 2. “After that game, parang sobrang taas na ng confidence ng bawa’t isa sa amin. So, I was confident that we weren’t going to let it slide in Game 2.”
They didn’t let it slide.
The Green Batters walked onto the UP Diliman field ready to claim what they wanted — “Gusto talaga namin manalo,” Joshua asserted.
Although UP was first to take the lead, a slim 1-0 early on, the Green Batters ended the first inning on top, 2-1. The Fighting Maroons never saw the lead again. Though they scored two more runs in the seventh, by then, DLSU had a relatively comfortable lead to keep them safe.
Throughout the game, DLSU’s performance was a true culmination of everything the team had to go through to make it to this point. Watching the team on the field in Game 2 in the finals of UAAP Season 85, you wouldn’t have guessed that when the Green Batters came back to training for the very first time, it had been three years since their last, and they did not know what to expect from one another as teammates at all. Their defense was clicking, they were operating in sync, and they played like a champion team.
Kings of the diamond — again
When the final pop-up flyball in the outfield was caught, the Green Batters ran into the middle of the diamond to celebrate with each other. Smiling, cheering, crying, laughing — it was a symphony of emotions.
“Alam mo ‘yung feeling na ‘di mo maiwasan maluha?” Joshua Pineda asked us. We knew what he meant.
He meant that after sustaining a minor injury that was still causing him pain, he still turned the tables in Game 1, and he still pitched from the first to ninth inning in Game 2, all for the championship. He meant that after one of the most challenging seasons for the team, and for him as well as an individual, he earned the title of Finals MVP. He meant that, “All yung sacrifices namin, yung pagod namin, lahat nag-bunga.”
The title of Most RBIs was also granted to co-captain Vince Flores, a climax to his story after his rookie year was canceled before it could begin in 2020. Coming back three years later, still a rookie by technicality, for him, “Sobrang surreal ng moment na ‘yun.”
But it wasn’t just the effort of these two captains. It was a true team effort. Working towards the same goal, every member had a role, and every member fulfilled those roles. “Everyone stepped up talaga, even the younger ones,” Vince explained. “Laging sabi ni Coach sa team namin na wala nang rookie rookie dito, everyone should do their part and everyone should step up. Pantay pantay kami.”
As a team of equals, the Green Batters put their trust in one another, they put trust in themselves, and they fought hard to achieve what they had set their minds to.
A championship worth the wait
When asked what their most memorable moment thus far in their time as Green Batters was, both captains Vince and Joshua had the same answer — it was the entirety of Season 85.
For Vince, it was because throughout the past few months leading up to the tournament, he felt that he and his teammates didn’t expect that they would all become as close as they did, given all the struggles they faced. But, it turned out that those challenges were the very reason that they became what he now calls a “brotherhood.”
Joshua, on the other hand, having played in Season 81 as a rookie, explained that four years ago, DLSU had an incredibly solid team, with many experienced players, which differed greatly from the fresh crop of new faces that just won Season 85. But this was what made the season that much more memorable for him — the fact that he got to witness the team develop all together. He saw all the effort everyone put in, and when it came out on the field, it was proof of their hard work.
Indeed, victory is sweeter when the journey’s been tough, and you can see it painted on the faces of the team as they celebrated their winning moment.
In two very different UAAP seasons, spread four years apart, the DLSU Green Batters still have the same title: Champions. And though the road to defend their crown was long, it was worth waiting for.