Eagle baseball edges Tigers in thriller; coach situation unclear
In a District 6-4A season that has already had some eye-opening developments, the Belen Eagles threw another wrench in the machinery last Friday.
The Eagles, who have struggled with clutch hitting all year, got six hits in the seventh inning of Friday’s game at Eddie Fulkerson Field to beat host Los Lunas, 11-9.
The game was the third in three days for Los Lunas, whose coach of three seasons, Robert Riggins, was relieved of all team duties last Thursday morning. Both the Eagles and Tigers were set to play Tuesday after News-Bulletin press time, with Belen hosting Gallup and Los Lunas hosting Grants.
Each season, no matter how the Tigers and Eagles are doing, the teams play intensely against each other, hoping to maintain county bragging rights. The teams split last year’s two 6-4A meetings, with Belen taking the second on an ineligible-player forfeit, and the Tigers won at Belen in this year’s first meeting, 6-1, on March 27.
Friday, the Tigers were playing their second game with interim coach Pete Candelaria at the helm. There were four lead changes in the exciting contest, the final one being when the Eagles rallied for seven runs in their final at-bat in the top of the seventh inning.
“I was proud of how we didn’t give up,” said BHS coach Steve Contreras. “I was proud of how guys were saying in the dugout, ‘The game’s not over,’ and, ‘Keep playing to the last out.’”
The Eagles got all seven runs off Tiger reliever Isaac Parra, who entered the game in the sixth inning, despite having pitched a seven-inning complete game just two days earlier in a 1-0 loss at Valencia High.
Belen sophomore Tim Vialpando had the biggest outing of his varsity career, striking out six and throwing 144 pitches to get the complete-game win.
The Tigers had taken an 8-4 lead into the seventh. Starting pitcher Cody Reynolds helped keep the Eagles in check, striking out five batters and never giving up more than two hits in any of his five innings of work.
Both teams squandered numerous opportunities; the Eagles stranded nine runners in the game, and the Tigers eight. Belen left runners on base in each of the first two innings before senior Hunter Blaylock hit a third-inning triple that scored Nick Kurtz and put the Eagles up 1-0.
Los Lunas took the lead in the bottom of the third on a two-run single by Mario Legarda, and Darron Gallegos raced home on a fourth-inning double steal that put the hosts up 3-1. Belen re-took the lead, 4-3, on one fifth-inning swing, when Joe Castillo doubled, scoring C.J. Newey, Kurtz and Blaylock.
In the bottom of the fifth, the Tigers went up 5-4 on Justin Yalch’s single that scored Reynolds and Preston Schollander. They extended it to 8-4 in the sixth, with Legarda hitting a two-run double and Schollander bringing him home with a triple.
The Eagles’ impressive seventh inning involved the first four batters reaching base and scoring. Newey doubled down the third-base line to score Lucas Gonzales and Troy Chavez with the runs that put Belen up 9-8, and the Eagle dugout got louder with each of the six hits of the inning.
Two batters later, Blaylock doubled to score Newey and Andrew Castillo with insurance runs.
Vialpando hit a batter and allowed one hit and an unearned run in the bottom of the seventh, and Reynolds represented the winning run as he batted with two men on. However, Vialpando froze Reynolds for a called third strike that ended the game, and Belen celebrated wildly.
“It’s nice to go out on top,” said Blaylock, a four-year standout, of BHS edging Los Lunas in the senior’s last regular-season game against the Tigers. “We know each other so well, and it makes it more competitive.”
Tuesday’s Gallup contest was to be the last home game for seniors Blaylock, Chavez, Joe Castillo and Gonzales. Joe Castillo finished with five RBI in his last game against LLHS, while Blaylock reached base four times and Gonzales went 3-for-4.
Contreras spoke with Vialpando often during the later innings Friday, but stuck with the sophomore, since his arm seemed live and his confidence had risen since overcoming some early walks.
Legarda had four RBI and a sacrifice bunt for Los Lunas, while Parra went 3-for-5 and Reynolds had two hits. Candelaria, who was an LLHS softball assistant during his daughter Jackie’s years in the program, said after the game that he only took over the job temporarily.
“I didn’t really want to do it, and I was told (Friday) I was needed to take over the C-team,” said Candelaria after Friday’s game. “So I told them Friday that I would coach for this game, since an assistant (Daniel Harmon) was out of town, but that’s it.”
Candelaria said that since some injuries have allowed Jackie, a freshman softball player at New Mexico State University, to go from redshirt status to playing regularly, he wants to watch as many of her games as possible.
The Tigers are set to host Gallup High on Saturday at 11 a.m., though it isn’t immediately clear who will coach the team. Belen is set to play at Miyamura that day, also at 11 a.m.
Riggins was involved in a heated discussion with an umpire after the controversial call that ended Wednesday’s game at Valencia High. The now-former coach contacted the News-Bulletin, saying he was relieved of duty Thursday by Los Lunas Schools athletic director Wilson Holland.
Riggins admitted he blocked the umpire’s path a few times, an aggressive move that sometimes led to an ejection and an automatic one-game suspension. Riggins was suspended last season after over-using a pitcher in the Belen game, leading to a forfeit, and, eventually, finishing runner-up to the Eagles, who took the 6-4A title.
However, making contact with an umpire is not often used as sole grounds for termination.
Harmon, the junior varsity coach, would appear to be at least a strong candidate to take over the varsity for the rest of the season.
However, LLHS athletic coordinator Andrew Saiz said a press release would come from Los Lunas Schools central office regarding the Tiger baseball program. No release was received by Tuesday’s press time.
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