The Sandia Matadors may be a little bit lucky to be in the state high school baseball playoffs this year. But luck only goes so far. The rest they’ve earned, and the Los Lunas Tigers will face a stiff challenge when they meet the Matadors in a Class 5A semifinal game in Farmington on Friday.
“They’re a very scrappy team, and they put the ball in play,” said Los Lunas third-year head coach Steve Contreras. “They had a very difficult schedule in a difficult district. They’re a very solid ballclub.”
Yet, if not for an eligibility issue that caused Del Norte to forfeit six of its district wins, Sandia (16-7) wouldn’t have made it to post-season play.
But catching that lucky break got them to a regional game against Rio Rancho last Friday. They out-hit the Rams 11-4 and scored a 6-4 win to advance to the Final Four in Farmington.
“Everybody is saying we got the good side of the bracket, but all of the teams are going to be tough,” said Los Lunas senior catcher Carlos Castillo. Los Lunas earned the right to face Sandia with a 10-0 win over Clovis on Saturday (see story above). “We just have to go out and play hard like we did today and try to take it to them.”
Taking it to the Matadors will be a formidable task. The Tigers could have their hands full should Sandia go with Kenny Clenaghan as its starting pitcher, as they are expected to do.
Clenaghan, who posted a 1.70 ERA during the regular season, improved his record to 8-1 after limiting the Rams to just two hits over six innings. The book on Clenaghan is that he’s more of a finesse pitcher than he is a classic strikeout pitcher.
“He throws a lot of off-speed pitches, so we’re going to have to work on staying back.” Contreras said.
Though they haven’t been to the state playoffs since 1987 and have returned just one starter from last year’s team, the Matadors have blended into state contenders under head coach Mike Robertson, who has headed the program since 1990.
The team is led by second baseman Mike McDuffie, who batted .538 this season, clobbered eight home runs and collected 29 RBIs. The Matadors have another power source in Raynor Lynn, who was second on the team with six homers and 20 RBIs.
Los Lunas counters with a potent lineup and no weak spots. Every batter in the Tigers starting lineup hit over .300 this season, lead by two of the state’s best hitters — Josh Hernandez and Carlos Castillo.
Hernandez led the state for the second year in a row with a .645 batting average, hit six home runs and drove in 32 runs. Castillo batted .541, socked eight homers and knocked in 40 runs.
The seniors are also one of the state’s top pitching duos. Hernandez is 9-1 this season, with an ERA below 1.00. So far this year, he’s struck out 88 batters in 63 1/3 innings. Castillo is 6-0 this season, with a 2.60 ERA and 45 strikeouts.
“We’ve got two pretty good one’s with Josh and Carlos,” Contreras said. “If we can get strong starts from them, we should be OK.”
Hernandez, who threw a five-inning, three-hit shutout against Clovis in the quarterfinal game, will get the start against Sandia. “We’re not going to take any chances,” Contreras said. “We’ve got two games to play, so we’re going to go with our ace first.”
The winner of Friday’s game will advance to meet the other semifinal winner between Carlsbad and La Cueva. But Contreras and his team aren’t looking past the Matadors.
“We’re taking it one game at a time. All we’re worried about now is Sandia,” he said.