Horsemen mix it up, trample Dexter
RIO RANCHO — Coaches can be creatures of habit who view change as more of a suggestion than a rule of thumb.
To many, the definition of “mixing it up” means moving a player or two around to send a message, not throwing caution to the wind and seeing what happens.
Augie Ruiz did just that with the St. Michael’s baseball team during Thursday night’s Class 3A state quarterfinals at Cleveland High School. Breaking with conventional thinking, he put his catcher at leadoff and his rightfielder, usually the 6- or 7-hole hitter, at No. 2.
The usual leadoff man was dropped to third. He batted what may be his best hitter last and had called for a new approach on the basepaths: runners getting the green light to run, calling for a hit and run in the middle innings and having one of his seniors steal home in the last inning.
It all worked to near perfection as the Horsemen scored the final nine runs of the game en route to a 13-3 mercy rule victory in five innings over No. 12 seed Dexter. It sends them into Friday afternoon’s state semifinals against district rival Las Vegas Robertson, the No. 1 overall seed.
“It’s not conventional, but that’s the point,” Ruiz said. “Hitting’s just contagious with these guys. They just feed off each other and it’s fun to see. It’s fun to be around.”
The Horsemen (18-9-1) only had eight hits, but they constantly put pressure on Dexter’s defense by putting the ball in play. The Demons committed five errors and three pitchers combined to walk five batters and hit two more.
The constant parade of baserunners allowed Ruiz to get aggressive on the bases. His team combined for five stolen bases, including Aiden Gantt’s walk-off swipe of home to usher in the 10-run mercy rule.
“My coach told me if he’s in the windup and he’s going slow to look at it,” Gantt said. “I looked and thought, well, this is the chance to go big, I guess.”
Gantt was one of three Horsemen with two hits, joining Jack Boggs and Eric Romero. Boggs drove in four runs and reached base all four times he came to the plate as the No. 2 hitter. He walked and scored in the first inning, doubled and drove in two in his second at-bat, reached on an ugly error by a misplayed popup to shallow center by the Dexter shortstop, then doubled in two more runs in his last plate appearance in a seven-run fifth.
Romero batted cleanup and had a two-run single in the fourth and a run-scoring single in the fifth.
The at-bat of the game, however, belonged to Gantt. He struck out on three straight swings and misses in his first plate appearance and quickly fell behind 0-2 on two called strikes in his next at bat.
Clearly frustrated, he stepped out the box and looked down at Ruiz in the third-base coach’s box.
All Gantt did from there was foul off five two-strike pitches, eventually reaching on a line drive single to center. Although it didn’t produce a run and left him stranded at first to end the frame, it seemed to kick-start an offense that has now scored 77 runs in its last five games.
Every Horseman who played Thursday reached base at least once. Seven different players scored at least one run.
It made things that much easier for starting pitcher Derek Martinez (4-0). With his fastball hovering in the high-70s all night, he shook off a rough first inning in which he loaded the bases with two walks and a hit batter to finish with a complete game and 10 strikeouts. At one point he had eight straight outs with K’s.
“I felt like I was in control the entire game, even in that first inning,” Martinez said. “My fastball was really good and the location was great. I started off a little nervous but after that I got into the rhythm of the game. From that point it was pretty easy.”
He allowed one run on a wild pitch in the first inning and was touched for a two-run homer in the third, but didn’t allow a hit from that point on. The Demons had only two hits and Martinez retired the final seven batters he faced.
With Robertson lurking in the semifinals, Ruiz said he’ll put sophomore Joaquin Armijo (4-0, 2.37 ERA) on the mound. He made one appearance against the Cardinals during the regular season, tossing two shutout innings in mid-April.
“Right now it’s all hands on deck,” Ruiz said. “At this point everyone is an option to pitch, but we feel Joaquin gives us that best chance right now.”