Long ball ends Longhorns’ long shot at state baseball title
Coach Rick Ryan and the Basalt bench were smiling. The 14th-seeded Longhorns – an underdog to No. 3 La Junta in Saturday’s first-round state tournament game – pushed across the game’s first run. It didn’t take long, however, for the pressure to bear down on Basalt (10-8). A few errant pitches and fielding miscues later, the Longhorns found themselves in an insurmountable hole. One of the best seasons in school history came to a halt with a 13-1 defeat in a game called after five.”Talentwise, we belonged there,” Ryan said Sunday. “The thing is they do this every year. They thought of this as just another game. We thought of it as an experience.”Ryan watched his team’s eyes brighten as they walked through the gates at Pueblo’s Runyon Field at 8 a.m. – he, too, was admittedly awestruck. Basalt was engrossed in the moment, taking pictures on the same field where Babe Ruth competed in an exhibition in 1938, and where Yogi Berra hit a home run. So engrossed that one player left the team’s bats on the bus, leaving the team with one 32-ounce bat for pregame warmups.”It was a little awkward from the get-go,” Ryan said. “The field was like a minor-league stadium. It looked like it was out of a movie.”
Other issues came to light before the team even made it to the field. Two senior starters – J.T. Donovan and Navardo Javalera – were late for the team breakfast, and, per team rule, had to sit out the start of the game. Ryan replaced Donovan with sophomore Alan Prater at third base, a move that paid quick dividends: Basalt’s second batter lined a one-out triple to the wall in center. He later came around to score on a bunt by Rory Johnson.”I decided to play small ball thinking Darren [Duroux] would hold them down,” Ryan said. “We just flat out walked too many guys.”Duroux hit the Tigers’ leadoff hitter in the bottom of the inning – the batter later tied the game. Duroux struggled with a tight strike zone, Ryan said, throwing just 25 strikes in 61 pitches and walking five. He allowed five runs in 3 1/3 innings of work, before junior Rory Johnson replaced him. Johnson walked three and hit one batter.The two teams were tied entering the third, when Basalt squandered a chance to take the lead. Left-handed hitter Javalera launched a ball to the gap in left-center with two outs and runners on first and second; the Tigers were perfectly positioned and ended the threat. La Junta pushed across four in the fourth, then pulled away in an eight-run fifth capped by a game-ending grand slam. The ball looked like it might drift foul, Ryan said, but to the dismay of Longhorns fans, it cleared the fence on the inside of the left field foul pole. The Longhorns, who recorded 16 hits in a 11-1 playoff-clinching win over Gunnison, could muster just three off La Junta’s Gabe Fernandez. While he wasn’t overpowering, Fernandez mixed in a knuckleball and worked extremely fast.
“He never left the rubber,” Ryan said. “We tried to mix it up to slow him down, and that ended up throwing us off a little.”We missed cut-off guys and did other things that you can’t do in a game like that. But that’s how we’re going to learn.”None of the three Western Slope survived the tournament’s opening weekend: No. 12 Roaring Fork fell to No. 5 Machebeuf in the first round. Slope champion and No. 4 seed Olathe blanked No. 13 Manitou Springs, 5-0, but fell to Machebeuf, 12-2, in five.No. 6 Faith Christian eliminated La Junta, 7-4, later Saturday.”I think I said two words on the bus ride home,” Ryan said. “I don’t like to lose and think we belonged there. Sometimes I feel like I play these games, too.
“The thing is, we got the doors blown off, but the hinges are still attached.”Despite the loss of Duroux, Donovan, Javalera and outfielder Ben Pollock, the Longhorns will return 10 players with varsity experience in 2007.During the six-hour trip home, Basalt was already making plans for summer baseball – and a return trip to state.”We should be back here next year,” Ryan said. “A lot of things can happen in a year, and it was a lot easier this year to be the underdog and sneak up on some people. It will be a lot harder being a team that people are worried about. We’ll have to earn everything, but we’re capable.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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When mountain culture enthusiasts and athletes descend on Vail for the 20th annual Mountain Games from June 7-12, they will carry on a tradition that dates back to the 1970s in Eagle County and was once deemed illegal.