Baseball: LA sweeps, takes control of district race

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By Mike Cote

While after Saturday, the Los Alamos Hilltopper baseball team might feel good about itself, skipper Mike Gill doesn’t want it feeling too good.

“Go look at that press box and tell me how many district championships we have written on there,” Gill told his players after Saturday’s doubleheader with Bernalillo. “There’s none.”

Los Alamos, however, took a big couple of steps to getting something written on that wall, however. Los Alamos upended the Bernalillo Spartans in a doubleheader Saturday, nipping Bernalillo in the first game, 4-3, then blasting the visiting Spartans in the second game 12-2.

The two wins at Bomber Field Saturday shot the Hilltoppers up to first place in the District 2AAAA standings, while the Spartans tumbled to second place, taking their first two district losses of the season.

Los Alamos could be well poised for its first district title since it joined Class AAAA in the 2001 season, but must still get by third-place Española Valley Wednesday, as well as a make-up game Monday at Taos and a doubleheader against the struggling Capital Jaguars in Santa Fe Saturday. A win over either Taos or Española Valley will assure Los Alamos of a playoff spot.

Because of postponements, Los Alamos will have to play eight games in a span of nine days to end its season, starting with Thursday’s doubleheader sweep of Capital and continuing with the big sweep of Bernalillo Saturday.

“The rest of the way out, to me, is all about mental toughness,” Gill said.

There was plenty of that for the Hilltoppers in game one Saturday.

In the opener, Los Alamos fell behind 3-0 after 3-1/2 innings. To make matters worse, Los Alamos was facing Kellen Quintana, one of the top pitchers in 2AAAA and had done little against him in its first three at-bats.

In the bottom of the fourth, however, the Hilltoppers pushed four runs across to go ahead. It was a lead it would never surrender despite having to go through the heart of a potent Spartan batting order twice more in the contest.

With two down in the fourth, nine-hole hitter Lance Fresquez singled in Jack Russell to get the Hilltoppers on the board against Quintana. The next batter, Eli Pulliam, doubled to left-center to drive in Fresquez.

Pulliam, Los Alamos’ lead-off batter, hadn’t been happy with his results at the plate during district and spent some extra time in the batting cage recently.

“I went into practice and worked on my swing,” said Pulliam, a senior left fielder. “Kept my head down, getting back to basics. I wasn’t feeling correct. My swing was a little dead.”

But his swing has been far from dead of late.

Pulliam followed up a 7-for-7 outing against Taos Thursday by going 2-for-4 in the first game with the big RBI in the fourth inning and 3-for-5 in the second game with a pair of runs driven in.

In the fifth inning of game two, Pulliam hit a bullet through the left side of the infield to drive in Ryan Schleft and end that game early via the 10-run rule.

But Saturday’s contests weren’t about the offense, he said.

“It had a lot to do with our pitching and defense,” Pulliam said. “Our pitching and our defense are playing tough. We had one error in two games. We’re getting the job done, the pitchers are getting the job done and we had their backs.”

After Pulliam’s RBI double, second baseman Adam Eberhart doubled to center to bring Pulliam around.

Eberhart, a senior, was a bit of a question mark heading into Saturday’s games after hurting his throwing hand in the Taos doubleheader.

One batter later, Zach Mang doubled in Eberhart, giving the Hilltoppers the lead.

On the mound, reliever Scott Berkebile pitched around a hit batsmen in the top of fifth, striking out big Bernalillo sticks Zac Martin and Dillon Darnell to get out of the inning unscathed and preserve the lead.

Berkebile got the win, finishing up the fourth inning for starting pitcher Zakk Walterscheid and throwing a scoreless fifth and sixth. Jack Russell earned a save, pitching his way out of trouble in the seventh.

In game two, the Hilltoppers jumped on Darnell, the starting pitcher for the Spartans who would eventually dislocate his right arm and be taken to the hospital.

Los Alamos scored five runs in the third, grabbing a 7-2 lead with Mang and Walterscheid delivering back-to-back doubles to open the inning, both of whom would come around to score.

Russell went 2-for-4 in game two with a pair of runs scored.

On the hill, Jon Thoma went five strong innings to pick up the win, not to mention giving the Hilltopper bullpen a badly-needed break.

Thoma gave up just the two earned runs in the first inning, pitching his way out of jams in the second and fifth to earn the victory.

He scattered six hits over the five innings, striking out four.