By Kevin Wilson
With defending state champion St. Michael’s out of the equation, the battle for the Class 3A baseball title seems is an open one.
The Portales Rams have had a lot of time to think about that, not to mention the first team standing in their way of that goal.
The Rams, last year’s 3A runnerup, begins its state title bid Tuesday at 3 p.m. against Cobre at Eldorado High School in Albuquerque. The Rams, Indians and six other teams are in the three-day tournament.
Portales coach Arturo Ontiveros said that the top teams in the field probably include the Rams and Indians, along with Lovington and Bernalillo (who meet in a 1 p.m. Tuesday game at La Cueva High School) and Raton.
Ontiveros doesn’t doubt the Indians will be one of the toughest matchups to start with.
“They put the ball in play,” Ontiveros said. “If they get momentum going, they’re going to do things right.”
They’ve proven that once already against Portales, winning 10-4 in the Silver City Invitational.
“I know they’re going to come out ready to go and play hard,” said senior catcher Tyler Rutherford. “They’re going to have the knowledge that they’ve beat us before.”
Plus, the Indians will have some payback on their minds. Portales defeated Cobre in last year’s regional tournament to advance to state.
Tuesday’s battle on the mound will be between Justin Gilchrist and Cobre’s Ron Amador. Ontiveros said that Amador is 9-1 and throws in the high 70s and low 80s. Still, he’s confident in Gilchrist, who has been dubbed “Hollywood” by his teammates.
Hitting, not Hollywood, is the concern for the first-year Ram coach.
“Hollywood’s been giving us a chance to win each day,” Ontiveros said. “We’re just not swinging the bats like we need to.”
The Rams (14-12) have been idle since April 30, when they were swept by Lovington but backed into the playoffs when New Mexico Military Institute split with Ruidoso.
Being idle for more than two weeks could make the Rams rusty, but Ontiveros said it’s a situation the rest of the field is experiencing as well — the state tournament was moved back a week during Christmas, when most district schedules were already finalized.
“When you play, it’s never a good thing to sit out two weeks,” Ontiveros said, “but we’ve been scrimmaging on a regular basis.”
That’s made for a very long suspension for sophomore Mario Salazar, who is required to sit out Portales’ opener. In the second game against Lovington, Salazar was ejected for a wild pitch that Ontiveros said was mistakenly characterized as a throw at an umpire.
New Mexico Activities Association rules require that an ejected player or coach must sit out the next game as punishment.
Ontiveros said he appealed to the New Mexico Activities Association on the basis that Salazar received no warning before being ejected. However, Ontiveros said he has heard nothing yet and is planning that the umpire’s decision on the field will be upheld.
If that is the case, Salazar would be required to sit out the tournament opener. He would be allowed to play in Portales’ semifinal against either Raton or Shiprock, and Ontiveros said that Salazar would likely pitch.
For the state title game, Ontiveros said that a combination of Sammy Hightower, Gilchrist and Salazar might be employed.
No matter what, the Rams coach feels the players are ready for next week.
“We’ve got a lot of kids that have played in these situations,” Ontiveros said. “We’re playing a tough team, but it (will come down to) whoever will play well with the situation.”