Experience and tradition won out in the Class 5A New Mexico state high school baseball championship game Saturday night at Farmington’s Ricketts Park. The Carlsbad Cavemen claimed their ninth state title with an 8-1 win over the Los Lunas Tigers, a team 30 years removed from its last state title — won in 1972 as a Class 3A school.
“You’ve got to give credit where credit is due. They’ve been here before, and their experience showed,” said Tiger head coach Steve Contreras of the senior laden Cavemen who lost last year’s championship game to Albuquerque’s Eldorado Eagles.
Carlsbad, which finished the season with a 24-1 record, certainly deserved to win. Ranked No.1 in the state throughout the season and 16th in the nation by Student Sports Magazine Fab 50, the Cavemen got good pitching from Chad Campbell and took advantage of some early opportunities on offense to gain the advantage and hold it.
But Contreras, and the legions of Los Lunas fans that made the 235 mile drive to Farmington, were proud of their Tigers, who ascended to the No. 2 spot in the state rankings by the end of the year. The team won Los Lunas its first district championship since 1984 and won its last 11 games to get to the state final. They certainly deserved to play for the state title.
“I’m proud of the guys,” Contreras said. “They came a long way. I don’t think anyone really expected us to be in the state championship. There’s nothing to be ashamed of — we’re state runners-up.”
The Tigers went on the attack from the start. Christain Rael swung at the first pitch of the game from Campbell but grounded out to second base. The next batters, Nathan Romero and Josh Hernandez, made good contact but lined out to infielders on the left side of the diamond.
Los Lunas starting pitcher Carlos Castillo looked like he might give the Cavemen fits when he caught Carlsbad leadoff hitter Greg Wallace looking at strike three to start the bottom half of the inning. But the Cavemen started a rally when center fielder Ryan French reached on an infield single.
Solid singles by Matt Jackson and Campbell loaded the bases. Kit Klein plated one run with a fly ball to deep centerfield. It looked like the Tigers might avert further damage when Castillo got two strikes on Raymond Pelton, but Carlsbad’s big third basemen drilled a double down the left field line that scored two to increase the lead to 3-0. Castillo got out of the inning with another called third strike to Eddie Duarte.
The Los Lunas offense went back to work in the top of the second. Castillo led off with a walk and was replaced by courtesy runner Jeremy Dear. One out later, Brain Holmes drilled a double to the gap in left-center field. Contreras sent Dear home, but Carlsbad made a perfect relay and gunned down Dear by 10 feet.
“All year long we’ve been aggressive that way,” Contreras said of his decision to send Dear. “The defense had to make the play to get us out, and they made the play.”
Matt Baca was caught looking, and the Los Lunas uprising was thwarted.
Carlsbad added another run in the second inning on another two-out double, this time by French, and the Tigers trailed 4-0.
Los Lunas managed to get base runners in the third and fourth innings but, unlike the Cavemen, were unable to get the big hit. And in the bottom of the fourth, Carlsbad began to put the game away.
The Cavemen doubled three times in the inning, and Castillo walked a pair of batters before Contreras lifted his senior, who entered the game with a 6-0 record.
Castillo hadn’t pitched since the Tigers clinched the District 3-5A crown two weeks earlier.
“I figured I’d be more rested and be able to throw better, but I didn’t,” said a dejected Castillo, sitting alone in the dugout after the game. “I wish I could have been able to help out more than I did today.”
Left-hander Larry Sutherland, who gave up just one hit in 2 2/3 innings of relief, got the Tigers out of the inning. But the Cavemen had added another three runs and now had a comfortable 7-0 lead.
Los Lunas did not give up, and helped by a couple of Carlsbad errors, had a chance to get back into the game.
With one out in the fifth, senior J.D. Garcia singled, and senior Travis Ferrel reached on an error by shortstop Wallace. Chirstain Real followed with a single, and Nathan Romero reached on another error by Wallace, who tossed the ball past the second basemen while trying to start a double play. Garcia scored on the play to cut the lead to 7-1, and Hernandez, the state’s leading hitter, stepped to the plate with the bases still full and just one out.
But Hernandez hit a high hopper to Pelton at third and Carlsbad got the force out at home. Campbell struck out Castillo, and the Cavemen dodged a bullet.
Los Lunas also threatened to comeback in the sixth. Senior James Alarcon was hit by a pitch to start the inning. Junior Brian Holmes then banged a double off the center field wall, putting two runners in scoring position with nobody out.
After Baca struck out, Garcia hit a sharp grounder back to the pitcher. Campbell snared it and caught Alacron off third base for the second out. Ferrel then grounded out to end the inning.
“You have to give them credit. We had some chances to score runs,” Contreras said. “But every time we started something, they found a way to stop us. We put the ball in play, and they made the plays.”
Carlsbad added an unearned run in the bottom of the inning to increase its lead to 8-1. It would take a miracle for Los Lunas to win the game in its last at bat.
A believer, Rael began the seventh with a solid single. Romero struck out swinging to temper the Tigers’ chances. Hernandez then hit the ball hard but on one hop to the second basemen who got the assist on the force out at second.
For Hernandez, who led the state with a .645 batting average, it was the first time he went hitless all season.
Castillo, and the Tigers, went down swinging to end the game. The Cavemen celebrated. The Tigers were left with a bittersweet feeling.
“We’re disappointed, but, in a way, we know we did something great,” Castillo said. “Just by getting here, we did something great. But we feel bad because we didn’t win the championship.”
“I’m very proud of the whole team,” said Contreras, who led the Tigers to a 19-6 season in his third year. “It’s been an awesome ride and a pleasure to be a part of it.”
Class 5A Semifinal
Friday, May 10 (at Ricketts Park, Farmington)
Los Lunas 102 002 0–5 7 1
Sandia 000 000 2–2 6 2
Los Lunas AB R H RBI Sandia AB R H RBI
C. Rael, RF 3 0 0 0 C. Eklund, DH 4 0 0 0
N. Romero, SS 4 1 1 0 J. Tainter, CF 0 0 0 0
J. Hernandez, P 3 1 2 3 R. Lynn, SS 4 1 2 2
C. Castillo, C 3 0 2 2 M. McDuffie, 2B 3 0 2 0
L. Sutherland, CR 0 1 0 0 K. Clenaghan, P 3 0 0 0
J. Alarcon, 1B 3 0 0 0 E. Miller, C 4 0 1 0
B. Hoilmes, LF 4 0 0 0 A. Johnson, CR 0 0 0 0
M. Baca, 3B 4 0 0 0 J. Hines, 3B 2 0 1 0
J. Garcia, 2B 3 1 2 0 S. Ikeda, 1B 3 0 0 0
T. Ferrel, CF 3 1 0 0 J. O’Donnel, RF 1 1 0 0
K. Shirley, LF 3 0 0 0
Totals 30 5 7 5 27 2 6 2
E–LL: Castillo, S: Lynn, Clenaghan LOB–LL: 9, S: 9 2B–LL: Garcia (2), Romero, Castillo, S: McDuffie HR–LL: Hernandez, Castillo, S: Lynn
Los Lunas IP H R ER BB SO
Hernandez (W) 7 6 2 2 2 13
Clenaghan (L) 6 7 5 3 3 2
Lynn 1 0 0 0 0 1
Class 5A Final
Saturday, May 11 (at Ricketts Park, Farmington)
Los Lunas 000 010 0–1 5 2
Carlsbad 310 301 X–8 10 3
Los Lunas AB R H RBI Carlsbad AB R H RBI
C. Rael, LF 4 0 2 0 G. Wallace, SS 2 1 0 0
Orasco, PR 0 0 0 0 R. French, CF 4 2 3 2
N. Romero, DH 4 0 0 1 M. Jackson, C 4 2 2 2
L. Sutherland, CF 0 0 0 0 C. Campbell, P 3 1 1 0
J. Hernandez, SS 4 0 0 0 K. Klein, 2B 3 0 1 2
C. Castillo, P 2 0 0 0 R. Pelton, 3B 4 0 1 2
J. Dear, PR 0 0 0 0 E. Duarte, LF 4 0 1 0
J. Alarcon, 1B 2 0 0 0 J. Ramos, 1B 1 1 1 0
B. Holmes, RF 3 0 2 0 N. Boyea, RF 3 1 0 0
M. Baca, 3B 2 0 0 0
J. Garcia, 2B 3 1 1 0
T. Ferrel, C 3 0 0 0
Totals: 27 1 5 1 28 8 10 8
E–LL: Garcia, Hernandez, C: Jackson, Wallace (2) LOB–LL: 8, C: 9 2B–LL: Holmes (2) C: Fresnch (2), Jackson, Klein, Pelton
Los Lunas IP H R ER BB SO
Castillo (L) 3 1/3 9 7 7 3 4
Sutherland 2 2/3 1 1 0 1 0
Campbell (W) 7 6 1 0 1 6