Sophomore Larry Sutherland slid across home plate with the game-ending run, safely sending the Los Lunas High School baseball team on to the Final Four of the Class 5A state baseball playoffs in Farmington.
“There aren’t really words to describe it. It just feels great,” said Los Lunas senior Carlos Castillo, shortly after the dust had cleared. “We knew we could do it, and we came out and did it. To be able to represent the town of Los Lunas at the state tournament, it’s one of the best feelings.”
The Tigers scored a 10-0 win over the Clovis Wildcats in a Region C playoff game before a crowd of about 800 Saturday afternoon at Los Lunas. But the good feeling didn’t come until after a moment of high anxiety.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, Sutherland chose to race home from third base after a wild pitch by Clovis pitcher Brandon Young was blocked by catcher Richard Urban but bounded about 15 feet in front of the plate.
“We told him to be aggressive, and he was,” Tiger head coach Steve Contreras said of Sutherland.
“It scared us a little bit, but it worked out.”
The run was the Tigers’ 10th of the game, evoking the 10-run “mercy rule” and ending the game.
Los Lunas (18-5) advances to meet Sandia (16-7) in a semifinal game at 2:15 Friday at Farmington’s Ricketts Park. The victor will face the winner of the other semifinal between Carlsbad and La Cueva at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Aside from the wild pitch, Clovis (12-10) helped send Los Lunas on its way to Farmington by committing five errors that led to five unearned runs.
“I think a sign of a good team is one that is able to capitalize on the other team’s mistakes, and I think that’s what we did today,” Contreras said. “They had a couple errors here and there, and when they did, that’s when we scored our runs.”
The Tigers took advantage of Clovis’ mistakes and made few of their own.
“We played real well,” said senior Josh Hernandez, who registered a three-hit shutout to improve his record to 9-1. “We made a few mistakes but were able to overcome them. We hit the ball like we knew how.”
Los Lunas tallied 10 hits and earned its first few runs of the game.
With one out in the bottom of the second inning, Brian Holmes got things started for Los Lunas with a double to right-center field that nearly was caught. Clovis center fielder Brad Bove made a sensational dive for the catch, but when he hit the ground the ball popped loose.
Clovis starter Justin Gee struck out the next batter but walked J.D. Garcia and Travis Ferrel to load the bases for leadoff hitter Christain Rael.
“The second baseman was playing me over (toward the hole),” the left-handed hitting Rael explained. “I was just trying my hardest, and it went through.”
The ball went through the infield and into center field for a two-RBI single, and Los Lunas led 2-0.
The Tigers picked up two more runs in the third inning. Hernandez led off the inning with a single and scored on Castillo’s double to the left-field corner. Sutherland, the courtesy runner for Castillo, scored when Clovis made its first fielding error of the game when James Alarcon hit a grounder to second base.
The Tigers added another run in the fourth to take a 5-0 lead. Nathan Romero led off with a single and later scored on a base hit by Castillo.
Meanwhile, Hernandez was shutting the Wildcats down.
“I felt real good on the mound,” he said. “Everything was working, and I had real good control of the ball.”
Hernandez walked none and got better as the game went on. “After catching him for so long, I noticed he gets better with every pitch,” Castillo said. “It’s not like he was better than he was last week, he’s better than the pitch before.”
Hernandez didn’t allow a runner past second base and struck out six.
Unable to sustain any offense, Clovis collapsed in the fifth. After walking Garcia and Ferrel again, Gee was lifted by Wildcat head coach Shane Shallenberger, who brought in Young for relief. Young provided little help, giving up a hit to Rael to load the bases. One run scored on a Clovis error, and Hernandez knocked in two with a double. After Castillo was intentionally walked, yet another error allowed Hernandez to score and Sutherland, running for Castillo, to advance to third.
With Holmes at the plate, Young let go of an errant pitch, and Sutherland darted for the plate.
“I thought, as long as I go hard and slide, I might be able to make it,” Sutherland said.
When he did, the celebration started. The Tigers heaped upon each other in a dog pile at home plate. There was also great joy for the Los Lunas fans, who haven’t seen a Tiger baseball team advance as far as the semifinals since Los Lunas was a Class 3A school in 1982.
The Tigers allowed themselves to celebrate on Saturday, but the their season is not over yet.
“We’re not done,” Contreras said. “We still have a couple more games.”