Though they have every reason to be confident going into their Region B high school baseball state playoff game on Saturday in Los Lunas, don’t expect the Los Lunas Tigers to be over-confident.
“We realize everybody in the playoffs is there for a reason,” said Tiger head coach Steve Contreras. “We just have to make sure we’re prepared to play — execute offensively and execute defensively.”
Nevertheless, the Tigers have every reason to be confident heading into the game to be played at noon on the Los Lunas High School diamond. Here’s why:
- Los Lunas will be playing within the friendly and familiar confines of Ed Fulkerson Memorial Field in front of a supportive home crowd. Clovis’ Wildcats will travel approximately 250 miles to make the trip and play in a ballpark they’ve never seen before.
- Los Lunas comes into the game having won 14 out of their last 15 games, including the last nine in a row. The Tigers are 17-5 overall and ranked second in the state in the latest Albuquerque Journal coaches’ poll. Clovis has the worst record of the “elite eight” playoff teams at 12-9. The Wildcats are unranked and were not among the seven teams to receive votes.
- Los Lunas has been here before. Last year the Tigers made the quarterfinals but lost to La Cueva, 10-3, in the regional at Las Vegas, NM. Clovis hasn’t been to the state playoffs in 40 years.
- Los Lunas has Josh Hernandez. Clovis doesn’t.
Hernandez, it seems (statistics compiled by the Albuquerque Journal did not include players from Carlsbad, the state’s top-ranked team), led the state in both hitting, with a .645 batting average, and pitching, with eight wins, a 0.96 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 58 1/3 innings this season.
It should come as no surprise Hernandez will be Los Lunas’ starting pitcher for Saturday’s big game.
“He’s our No. 1 guy. He’s our ace,” Contreras said. “You’ve got to go with your ace.”
Hernandez (8-1) usually finishes what he starts. He’s thrown eight complete games in nine starts.
But if he should falter, Hernandez’s battery mate, Carlos Castillo, could shed his catcher’s gear to toe the slab if needed. As a pitcher, Castillo mounted a 6-0 record this season. His ERA is 2.60, and he’s struck out 45 in 32 1/3 innings.
Hernandez and Castillo, both seniors, have been the heart of the 2002 Tigers.
“Besides their contributions athletically — they’ve pitched well and hit well for us this season and come through for us when we needed it — they are our team leaders,” Contreras said. “They lead by example and have a tremendous work ethic. The rest of the boys follow those two guys.”
Depending on the situation, Contreras could turn to others in his stable of pitchers, if he is in need of relief.
Sophomore Xavier Alvarado and junior Brian Holmes both pitched well in the Tigers’ doubleheader sweep over Anthony Gadsden a week ago.
Also, left-handers Christain Rael, a junior, and Larry Sutherland, a sophomore, have been used in the closer’s role this year.
Backing the pitchers is a solid defense, especially the infield of James Alarcon, J.D. Garcia, Nathan Romero and Matt Baca, from first to third.
“The last few games we’ve been playing pretty solid defense,” Contreras said. “We have solid starting pitching with Josh and Carlos, but you’ve got to have guys making the plays behind them. It’s been a solid team effort.”
Los Lunas has a potent offensive attack. While allowing opponents to score five runs per game this season, the Tigers average 9.36 runs per game.
Hernandez and Castillo power the Tiger offense. Protecting Hernandez in the order, cleanup hitter Castillo is tied atop the RBI list, with 40, and second in home runs, with eight. Hernandez clobbered six home runs this season, including three in his last home appearance — a state playoff-clinching doubleheader sweep of Alamogordo. With some good hitters in the order ahead of him, Hernandez has knocked in 32 runs.
Alarcon, who bats fifth, has had a solid senior season. He hit .417, hit three homers and was second on the team in RBIs with 33.
The entire Tiger lineup hit over .300 this season. Together, they batted .399 as a team.
A key to the game against Clovis will be putting runs up on the scoreboard early. In last year’s playoff against La Cueva, the Tigers fell behind and never recovered.
Contreras said the experience of last year should help them this time around.
“Just being in that game last year will help us,” he said. “Last year we kind of started off the game, and we were overwhelmed by the whole situation. We were down six or seven runs before we knew it. This year we’ll be focused on the game and not the hype.”
As well they should be. Because even though all things seem to point to a Tiger victory, Clovis has some things going in its favor:
- Justin Gee will likely get the nod as Clovis’ starting pitcher. His numbers are very comparable to Castillo’s. Gee has a 6-1 record, 2.75 ERA and 42 strikeouts this season.
“Justin Gee is a good pitcher,” Contreras said. “He throws in the mid-80s and has a good curve ball.”
- The Wildcats are capable of producing runs. Jason Seefeld leads the team in hitting with a .477 average and 25 RBIs. The Wildcats have another .400 plus hitter in Matt Cordova, who hit at a .446 clip.
Contreras said scouting reports on Clovis reveal they are fast and aggressive on the bases. “They are an athletic team, with a lot of team speed,” Contreras said. “They get runners on base, and they’ll run.”
- The Wildcats, managed by first-year head coach Shane Shallenberger, can afford to play it fast and loose. They’re not expected to win. They can apply the pressure, and, if they do gain leverage with some runs in the early innings, they can be a dangerous team.
So don’t expect the Tigers to be overly confident when they take the field at noon.
“We’re not going to listen to predictions. Everything will ultimately be settled on the field,” Contreras said.