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Saturday, July 13, 2024

Bulldog baseball splits with Rockets

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Bulldog junior JR Bustamante powers a strike over the plate during Game One against the Rockets Friday at Brainard Park. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Tied for the lead in regular-season District 4-AAAAA play after sweeping Lovington and Roswell High respectively, the Bulldog baseball team and D4 nemesis Goddard knew they were in for a showdown on a cold, windy night at Brainard Park.

And while the double header didn’t decide anything as far as early district play is concerned – with both teams emerging 3-1 – it did prove something significant to the boys in orange: They’re more than capable of playing with the Class 5A top-ranked and defending state-champion Rockets.

“I thought we came out last night and played really hard,” Artesia head coach JJ Ortiz said following his team’s 8-3, 5-11 split with the Rockets Friday. “We competed really well in that first game. Unfortunately, things didn’t go our way after the first inning of the second one, but that’s how it goes sometimes, and we’re just going to come back stronger from it.”

Friday’s opener was something of a standoff for the bulk of the game between junior ace JR Bustamante and his Rocket counterpart, Drew Price.

After Bustamante and his defense held Goddard scoreless in the top of the first, the ‘Dogs got on the board in the home half on an AJ Estrada RBI double that plated Taylor Null, also aboard with a two-bagger.

The Rockets were able to turn the tables in the top of two, however, on a two-run homer by Eli Fairbanks off a pitch Bustamante left hanging just enough to be detrimental.

A third Goddard run came around in the third on an error and a wild pitch, making the Bulldogs’ deficit 3-1 through three-and-a-half.

Artesia was able to get one run back in the bottom of four on a suicide squeeze by Bustamante, and after holding the Rockets at bay for the second consecutive at-bat in the top of five, the Bulldogs used that spark to turn the tide.

Null got things started with a single and Aaron Natera followed suit, after which a walk by Estrada loaded the bases. A pop-up on the infield gave Artesia one away, but a two-base error in the outfield saw two runs around, and a throwing error following a ground out one batter later scored two more to make it 6-3 ‘Dogs.

The boys in blue threatened in the top of the sixth before a double play and a strikeout ended it, and Artesia was able to add a pair of insurance runs in the bottom of the inning on a Null two-run blast over the right-field fence.

Noah Nunez posted a two-out, ground-rule double for Goddard in the top of seven, but a strikeout – Bustamante’s ninth of the evening – ended the game.

The junior hurler allowed just five hits and two earned runs through seven complete, while the Bulldogs posted 10 hits in the game. Null was 4-4 with two RBI, followed by Natera, 2-3 with a walk.

“When you’re playing these district games, you’re kind of trying to match their pitcher with one of yours and see how it goes,” said Ortiz. “They had one of their best pitchers on the mound in that first game, and we had one of ours, so it was best on best and pretty exciting.
“After that, we had to save some of our pitchers who aren’t quite ready to throw in the second game, so while they had another of their top pitchers, we kind of had to mix and match, and things just went the other direction a little bit.”

Natera started on the hill for the ‘Dogs in the nightcap, and Goddard was able to manufacture a pair of runs in the top of the first on a stolen-base-turned-error and a wild pitch.

Artesia answered with a vengeance in the home half, however, running the lineup and notching five on Null’s second two-run homer of the night, a Fernandez RBI single, and a two-run throwing error.

To the fans braving the dropping temperatures, it looked as though the game was shaping up to be a back-and-forth battle. But unfortunately, those five runs would be all the offense the Bulldogs managed in the bout.

The Rockets came back with four more runs of their own in the second on RBI doubles by Mason Sonive and Price, and RBI base hits from Matt Shanor and Cameron Stevenson to take a 6-5 lead.

The ‘Dogs went down in order in both their second and third at-bats, and Goddard made it 9-5 in the top of four on a Shanor sac-fly, a Stevenson homer, and an error.

Artesia was unable to move a runner past first in their half of the inning, and as Natera gave way to AJ Ferguson, who gave way to Trent Taylor, the hits just kept on coming for the Rockets, who got another homer – this time for two runs – from Stevenson in the fifth.

The Bulldogs threatened in the bottom half with a leadoff walk by Cooper Flores, but a double play and a K ended the at-bat, and Fernandez singled to lead off the bottom of the sixth but was picked off at first.

With the score still at 11-5 Rockets going into Artesia’s final opportunity, Taylor followed a ground out with a double to give the ‘Dogs a runner in scoring position with one away. A strikeout and a fly ball, however, ended the game.

With the split, the Bulldogs moved to 10-8 on the year, 3-1 in district play, while the Rockets improved to 13-3, 3-1.

“It’s always great to beat Goddard in any sport, and we were happy to get that win,” said Ortiz. “With them being the No. 1 team in the state, it really just shows the rest of the state what kind of team we have and how well we can play.

“I was happy with our effort, but like I told the guys, it’s time to put it in the past and learn from that second game. We have to respond differently in a double header, and now that we know we can’t let up, we have to come out and play a little harder, I think it’s going to be good for us.”

The ‘Dogs will close out the first round of regular-season district play at 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. Tuesday against Roswell (5-13, 2-2) at Coke Field.

“We’re still looking to keep improving every game, pitch by pitch, inning by inning, and we want to approach every team we play like they’re the No. 1 team in the state,” said Ortiz. “That’s the mentality we have to have – let’s show them our best. Roswell has struggled a little bit this year, but this is the game of baseball. You never know what’s going to happen, so like I told the guys, respect your opponent and let’s go get two.

“We really appreciate the people who came out and supported us Friday night with the wind the way it was, and we’ll be back this Friday against Lovington. It’s going to be Little League Night, so we’re expecting to have a full crowd, and we want to encourage everyone to come out and support these players. Let’s fill the stands and have a good time watching some baseball.”

Brienne Green
Daily Press Editor

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