May 19, 2016
Mountaineer assistant coach Derek Matlock said he discovered Vera while watching a tryout for the Houston Banditos travel team during Vera’s sophomore year of high school in the summer of 2014.
“That’s one of the top select programs in the country and he was basically down there for a workout in front of about 50 college coaches,” Matlock recalled yesterday during another fishing trip down to Houston before West Virginia’s big three-game series at fifth-ranked Texas Tech beginning tonight. “There were a lot of frontline guys there and I just noticed him really swinging the heck out of it and throwing the heck out of it.”
Vera didn’t make the Houston team but he did wind up playing for the Austin Banditos close to his home in Round Rock, Texas. There he continued to grow on Matlock as a versatile, all-around good baseball player.
“When he went to Austin he was a superstar for them and I watched him a couple more times and really fell in love with him, fell in love with his makeup – a fun-loving kid who is always thanking you for everything you do for him,” said Matlock.
Vera, at 5-feet-9 inches and 184 pounds, doesn’t pass the eyeball test for a high-major college or professional baseball player, and consequently, he didn’t have a single Division I offer until West Virginia came along.
There were a few local junior colleges calling him and a few schools willing to give him a chance to walk on if he made the team, but West Virginia’s Randy Mazey was the only coach to give him a firm offer.
“I really wanted to play for a Big 12 school and when I got the opportunity from Coach Mazey I had to take it,” said Vera.
What was so appealing about Vera, first for Matlock, and then later for Mazey when he watched him play, was the way he went about his business. It didn’t matter where he played in the field, he just rolled with it.
“I just want baseball players,” said Matlock. “What I liked about him was he pitched, he played third and I loved the way he caught. We needed a catcher and then his coach ended up playing him at another position, pitched him, and he was good at everything they asked him to do.
“I told Randy, ‘We’re getting a down-in-the-dirt, tough baseball player who can play wherever we need him,” added Matlock. “He can play in the outfield if we need him to. He could probably pitch an inning if we needed him to because he’s got a good breaking ball. He’s just a baseball player with a good makeup and he doesn’t let the game get to him.”
Vera’s outstanding makeup has helped him become one of the best young hitters in the Big 12. After spending the first part of the season on the bench, Mazey needed Vera’s bat in the lineup so he found a spot for him at third base.
Now, 36 games later, Vera is leading the team with a terrific .421 average in 107 at bats. Vera currently doesn’t have enough at bats to qualify for this week’s NCAA leaders, but if he did he would rank fourth.
When he’s on, which has been for the entire month of April and most of May, Vera is a gap-to-gap hitter who can handle any pitch. Vera said he changes his approach almost every time he steps into the batter’s box so opposing pitchers can’t get a read on him.
“I just want to be a hard out to get,” he explained.
Like all good hitters, whenever Vera struggles he always goes back to the basics of hitting the ball back up the middle or to right field.
“Whenever I don’t hit like I normally do what usually helps me out is hitting to the 4-hole, past second base or past first base,” he explained. “That’s when I catch myself and realize I need to stay in the 4-hole up the middle and not try and do too much.”
Vera can handle the bat so well that he even dropped down a slash-bunt during Tuesday night’s 10-6 win at Pitt for his fourth hit of the game.
That’s the sign of a player who has been around high-level baseball for a while and has an idea of what he’s doing out there.
“He had been jacking around with us telling us he can slash bunt to the shortstop because everyone in high school always played so deep against him,” said Matlock. “We were always laughing at him and Randy was like, ‘No you didn’t. Let me see it.’ So he did it in BP and Randy said, ‘Alright, here is a sign for it.’ I’ll be damned if he didn’t do it at Pitt for his fourth hit.”
Vera was named the Big 12 Newcomer of the Week for the week of May 2 after batting .571 with eight hits, a .929 slugging percentage and 13 total bases in West Virginia’s series wins against Marshall and Baylor.
Vera also had six hits during West Virginia’s three-game sweep of Texas the following weekend. That was a special weekend for Vera because he grew up a Longhorn fan.
“It’s exciting to be able to play against those teams that kind of overlooked me,” said Vera, who has taken on the nickname ‘Pudge” since joining the Mountaineers.
The nickname comes from his resemblance to former Major League catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, who also stands just 5-feet-9 inches.
Vera is one of six key freshmen contributors on this year’s team, which has now won 11 straight and is playing its best baseball of the year. Vera says it’s pleasing being part of a freshman class that has performed so well this season.
“We come here and we’re expected to produce,” he said. “This is Big 12 baseball so you’ve got to produce and that’s what we’ve been doing and it’s helping the team out a lot. We’re getting wins and that’s what we need.”
It’s not easy getting those guys from the south to come up north to play college baseball – almost like swimming upstream. But discovering those underrated ballplayers from Texas who play all of the time and know how to play the game has to be one part of West Virginia’s recruiting formula moving forward, Matlock believes.
“Those are the guys we’ve got to find at West Virginia University if we’re going to turn the corner,” he admitted. “When we get in too many of those fights, and we win three fights out of 100 against those draft guys, especially pitchers, it’s hard. There are so many great offensive players that nobody knows about, or they may get overlooked because of their size and it’s fun finding those guys.”
Fun enough for Matlock to keep his pole in the water during those fishing trips he keeps making down to Texas.