Baseball: LA rallies to win in extra innings

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By Mike Cote

Heading into this weekend’s action, the Los Alamos Hilltopper baseball team had already snapped one of its most notable dry spell.

It took the long way, but on Friday and Saturday it broke the other.

Los Alamos took two of three games from the Moriarty Pintos this weekend at Bomber Field, needing a rally in extra-innings to win the third game and advance to the quarterfinal round of the state Class AAAA tournament, something it hadn’t in three straight postseason appearances.

Hilltopper left fielder Eli Pulliam lined a base hit into right field bringing home shortstop Jack Russell and pinch hitter Austin Aslin in the bottom of the eighth to beat the Pintos in the deciding game of the three-game set.

Los Alamos was down to the final out of its season when Pulliam connected for the series-winning hit, giving his squad an 11-10 come-from-behind victory.

The Hilltoppers will now advance to play Artesia Thursday morning in Albuquerque.

Just a week earlier, the Hilltoppers swept the Capital Jaguars in a District 2AAAA doubleheader, clinching its first district title since 1998 when it was still playing in Class AAA.

But the Hilltoppers might not have gotten to the next round of state tournament play had it not been for the late-game pitching of Lukas Coker.

Coker, a junior, made just his third and fourth appearances of the season in Saturday’s doubleheader. After a solid showing in Saturday’s first game, setting down five of the six batters he faced, Coker threw a stout 3-1/3 innings in the second game, quieting the bats of a tough Pinto lineup.

Unfortunately, Coker was on the hook for the game three loss despite giving up just one earned during his time. Even though Los Alamos’ offense sputtered with two chances to win the game outright, Coker was down on himself for allowing the run in the top of the eighth and breathed a big sigh of relief in the bottom of the eighth.

“I was happy because I felt I’d let the team down,” Coker said of Pulliam’s game-winning single.

Using a good mix of fastballs and breaking stuff, Coker gave up just four hits in relief of Russell, who started the game.

“We talk about our program a lot,” Hilltopper manager Mike Gill said. “There was a perfect example. Lukas didn’t throw much for the varsity, but he threw down in (junior varsity). The program worked for us (Saturday). The program paid off in a big way, and talk about a gutsy performance.”

Moriarty, down a game after Friday’s opener, came back from an early 5-1 deficit, pushing three runs across in the third and four more in the fourth to wrest control of game three heading into the later innings.

In the weekend’s opener, Los Alamos exploded for 10 runs in the bottom of the third to take control of the opener of this weekend’s series, on its way to blasting Moriarty 16-5 in five innings.

The Hilltoppers, who swung hot bats throughout the District 2AAAA season, didn’t show any signs of let-up after being off for nearly a week. The one-through-nine order was productive throughout Friday’s game, with nine-hole hitter Lance Fresquez going 4-for-4 with 4 RBI, including a solo home run in the fourth inning, his first home run of the season.

Fresquez had one of the key hits of the third inning, finding the hole between shortstop and third base for a single that brought in two runs.

“I just see the ball and hit the ball,” Fresquez said. “Keep it simple, that’s what we try to do.”

Later in the third inning, shortstop Jack Russell took a line drive into the gap in right-center clearing the bases and bringing Zach Mang, Zakk Waltescheid and Michael Helland around to score, giving the Hilltoppers a 13-1 lead.

The Hilltoppers pounded out six hits and sent 14 batters to the plate to help close the game out early.

Moriarty actually scored first in the contest, pushing a run across in the first inning. Walterscheid, the starting pitcher, nearly got out of a jam in the opening inning, with two of the first three batters of the game reaching base, but Moriarty’s Joe Stidham came around to score on a throwing error to give the Pintos a 1-0 edge.

The inning might have been extended if not for a sliding catch by Mang in center field to retire Moriarty’s Robbie Bell for the third out.

Walterscheid went the distance Friday, giving up just two earned runs. He allowed just three hits and struck out eight, although two of those went on to reach on passed balls.

Moriarty tried to come back in the fourth inning to avoid getting closed out early. Stidham had a cue-shot single to short right in the inning, driving in one of the team’s four runs.

Offensively, the Hilltoppers knocked out starting Pinto pitcher Sam Crabtree after just 1-1/3 innings. Crabtree gave way to Isaac Aragon, who finished off the contest.

“We were ready to go out there and play ball,” Los Alamos second baseman Adam Eberhart said. “We haven’t played for awhile. We weren’t going to worry about the pitcher.”

Eberhart went 3-for-4 with two RBI, doubling in Eli Pulliam in the fourth inning to give Los Alamos the all-important 10-run lead heading into the top of the fifth.

Eberhart scored an insurance run on an error later in the inning.

For the game, the Hilltoppers collected 14 hits, at least two in every inning.

Walterscheid crushed a 2-1 fastball, clanging it off the light tower in right-center to get things rolling in the third inning. After his two-run blast, he would get a third RBI, drawing a walk with the bases loaded later in the inning.

Fresquez’s fourth inning shot was a line drive into left-center. He said after the game he didn’t think he’d gotten all of the pitch.

“I wasn’t too sure,” he said. “It felt good off the bat. I was just hustling for a double or something.”

Los Alamos looked like it was starting to take control of Saturday’s game two of the three-game set, scoring four unanswered runs after Moriarty took a 2-0 lead to start the contest.

But the Pintos drove in nine runs in the top of the sixth to grab an 11-4 win and force game three.

Jon Thoma started the contest, giving up just three earned runs through 5-plus innings of work. Thoma was pulled with two on in the sixth in favor of Mang, but five straight Pintos reached after he took over.

Moriarty’s No. 9 hitter, Eric Garcia, shot a ball right up the box for a base hit, driving in two runs to give the Pintos their first lead since the third inning.

The Hilltoppers appeared to have all the momentum heading into the game’s late innings. In the fifth, Walterscheid singled in Eberhart from second, then Helland hit a sacrifice fly to drive in Mang.

Helland also drove in the first Los Alamos run of the game, coming back from a 1-2 count against hard-throwing Moriarty pitcher Robbie Bell to single to short right field, bringing Eberhart around to score.

Bell managed to escape the most serious trouble he faced in the contest. He went the distance giving up four earned runs fanning nine batters.

Thoma allowed just four hits and struck out four.

Thoma would pick up the win in the finale, however, coming in during the extra frame to strike out Garcia, then get Keaton Chancellor to ground into a fielder’s choice, keeping the margin at one run.

Stidham had a fine late-game performance for the Pintos, as well, relieving starter Nick Gonzales in the fifth inning and holding the Hilltoppers scoreless in the sixth and seventh before allowing the game-winning hit to Pulliam in the eighth.

“Joe is our senior leader,” Moriarty manager John Ruben said. “He’s come up big for us on offense and defense all year. It just didn’t end up quite the way we’d liked, but he threw some good pitches and good pitches when he was down in the count.”

Los Alamos tied the score at 9-9 in the fifth, where it stayed until the eighth, with Pulliam hitting a chopper over the drawn-in infield to drive in Russell and Fresquez. He finished the game 3-for-6 with a double and four runs driven in.

The current roster of Hilltoppers are now headed into unknown territory. They will take next week to learn more about Artesia’s Bulldogs, but for the moment, will savor the flavor.

“It feels amazing,” Coker said. “We’ve never been there before, we’ll see what happens...it’s awesome.”