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BERNALILLO — A big turning point in the season for the Los Alamos Hilltopper baseball team occurred about two weeks ago.
Los Alamos, which had struggled through a tough nondistrict schedule to that point, played three of its best games of the season at a tournament in Farmington. While Los Alamos went just 1-2 in the tournament, the team seemed to kick its game up a notch.
Should the Hilltoppers be looking to turn their fortunes around in 2011, they picked a good time to do it.
Wednesday in its District 2-4A opener, Los Alamos manufactured runs when it needed to, then got a monster shot courtesy of Jared Mang in its final at-bat to grab a 4-3 victory against the Bernalillo Spartans at Coach Dave Rostro Baseball Complex.
Mang, Los Alamos’ shortstop and No. 3 hitter in the order, worked the count to 3-1 in his favor, then crushed a fastball over the wall in near-straightaway center to break a 3-3 tie.
“I got a fastball belt-high,” said Mang, who as an eighth-grader has already established himself as a force in the Hilltopper lineup. “I was sitting fastball. I didn’t think he was going to throw another hook.”
Bernalillo pitcher Ryan Garcia, who had himself a good duel with Los Alamos pitcher JD Weiss Wednesday, made just one big mistake on the day, the fastball to Mang.
The Hilltoppers (4-9 overall, 1-0 in 2-4A) and the Spartans (5-8, 0-1) have been duking it out for the last several seasons for the district title and this year looks like it could well come down to those two teams again. Wednesday’s win for the Hilltoppers, who won the 2-4A title in 2009 and 2010, gives them the early advantage over the Spartans, who won in 2007 and 2008.
The two teams will meet again in a doubleheader April 16 at Bomber Field.
Wednesday’s game wasn’t the first time the two teams had bumped heads this season. They met at the St. Pius X Invitational earlier this month with the Spartans grabbing a 14-6 victory. The Hilltopper pitching staff issued 13 walks in that game along with six pitches that went to the backstop.
“We were still trying things out at that time,” Los Alamos manager Mike Gill said. “We use the predistrict games for that…but we’ve lost five games by two runs or less. We should be able to stay loose. It’s just a matter of finishing, good pitching and good defense.”
Los Alamos got both top-quality pitching and defense against Bernalillo.
Weiss threw a complete game to pick up the victory. He gave up just two walks and struck out six batters.
However, Weiss had to gut out several tough innings throughout the game.Things hardly got off to a rollicking start for Weiss. The second batter he faced, Clint Reynolds, belted a line drive solo homer to right field, one of two solo shots he hit in the game.
Weiss gave up three home runs in the game, all of them solo blasts. Reynolds tied the game at 3-3 with his fifth inning shot, while Forrest McCook had the other in the fourth.
Weiss said all three home runs came on fastballs he left up in the strike zone. The early home run by Reynolds could’ve set the tone for the rest of the game, but instead Weiss said he was able to work around the first inning miscue.
“As a pitcher, I have the best job in the world,” Weiss said. “I get to throw to guys who have no idea what’s coming. I have a solid defense behind me. I have those guys making plays.”
One of the biggest defensive plays of the game came soon after Mang’s go-ahead home run in the top of the seventh. The first batter of the home half of the inning, Garcia, hit a line drive toward the gap in right center, but Hilltopper center fielder Thomas Russell made a diving stab to rob Garcia of extra bases.
Weiss got the next batter, Reynolds, to foul out and No. 3 hitter Dillon Darnell to hit a routine fly ball to center to close out the contest. Weiss scattered seven hits throughout the game.
Gill said Weiss’ being able to battle through the rough start made a big difference.
“That’s huge,” he said. “Rarely does a solo home run beat you. If you keep guys off the bases, you can recover from that.”
Garcia gave up eight hits and four earned runs while striking out seven.
Offensively, Mang went 3-for-3 with a double and scored twice, while Billy Cooper was 2-for-4 and drove in two runs.
Cooper had a RBI single in the first to help Los Alamos jump out to a 2-0 lead, then added another run-scoring single in the fifth.
Los Alamos never trailed in the game.
The Hilltoppers are currently tied for the district lead with Santa Fe, which outlasted Española Valley 13-12 in its 2-4A opener Wednesday. The Hilltoppers and Demons will face off in a doubleheader Saturday in Santa Fe.
“The way we’re playing, we can run with anyone,” Weiss said. “We’ve been right on the edge for most of the season.”