With the upcoming city league tournament set to begin Wednesday evening, tension around the Farmington baseball community is very high. The team that wins city receives one of the three Connie Mack World Series berths not requiring a regional title. It is basically the path of least resistance into the Series, and as a consequence locally based teams put everything they have into this single week of baseball. In a typical year, only two teams have a realistic shot at winning the event. Of these two teams, normally every kid on the field and a strong majority of the dugout will ultimately play collegiately somewhere in this country. At least a kid in the league usually will be drafted each season. Occasionally a kid will make it to the big leagues eventually. The point I’m trying to make is that the caliber of the event is high on its own. When the implications of a World Series berth are taken into account, it makes for the most exciting baseball event of the summer for practically every guy in the Four Corners region who has any remote ties to the sport.
While in a typical season only two teams walk into the tourney with what most folks would consider a chance to win it all, this year there are four. Those four teams are the reigning champion Durango Thunder, the top seeded Naataanii, the Strike Zone Cardinals, and the Four Corners Nutz. The only team to escape games used for seeding purposes without taking a loss is Naataanii. Naataanii is primarily comprised of players from nearby Native American reservations. They are allotted the largest area from which to recruit players that will be deemed locals by the league’s organizing body, FABC. That is a meaningful distinction because each team can recruit four imported players from anywhere on the planet. The first three teams I mentioned heavily recruit players from all over the Southwest, and these players tend to be very good. Shane Andrews (a decade in the Bigs) is probably the finest imported player ever to play in the Farmington Connie Mack League, but the most prominent imported player of the most recent decade is Daniel Ray Herrera of the Cincinnati Reds (recently demoted to AAA). Naataanii’s best players happen to be a couple of imported pitchers, Matt Chavarria of Carlsbad and Josh Walker of Rio Rancho. Both of these players were All-State 1st Teamers on the mound and are regarded as among the top 10 players in New Mexico. Naataanii’s offense is relatively thin, but their pitching can keep them in just about any game. Naataanii also always seems to bring a kid or two that no one has ever seen before who will sit at 94 for 100 pitches. Basically, no one will be surprised if Naataanii finally breaks through for its first league title this year. They carry the top seed for a reason and have handed every squad in the league at least one loss.
The Thunder are the reigning champions and are based in Durango, CO. Their best players, however, are the brothers McCasland, Jake and Morgan. Aside from being great kids, these two brothers have cast their shadow over Farmington baseball over the last few years and seemingly can do anything they want on the field. Jake is the older of the two and was taken in the 38th round by the Giants a few weeks ago. Rumor has it that Jake will be offered a way-above-slot, six-figure signing bonus that could reach as high as $150,000. Whether that happens or not, Jake has quite a future in the game with the potential to eventually be the Friday-nighter at UNM. He was voted the AAAA Player of the Year for 2010 and has been far and away the top pitcher in Farmington over the last two years. Morgan is the starting catcher for the Thunder, and this is his second year in that role. Although he was the youngest player on their squad last season, the younger McCasland has been a mainstay in the top of their order and remains so going into the tournament. Other notables on the Thunder are shortstop Aaron Coats of Lamar Community College, Nick Clayton (a former ace on the mound for FHS), 1st Baseman J.T. Bean of NMJC, and All-State 1st Teamer Deven Nelson of Artesia. Their first four guys on the mound are all excellent and their lineup has not changed much since last season when they won the league. Any win against the Thunder will require a considerable performance on the mound because of their powerful offense.
The Nutz have been the surprise of the league. A team comprised primarily of starters from smaller schools and reserves from larger ones, they have performed at a level on par with the other top teams in the league. Their top talent is AAA Player of the Year, Alex Garcia of Bloomfield High. Garcia is the best defensive outfielder in town and would be a top-of-the-order hitter in every lineup. He also is probably their ace on the mound. Garcia tossed a one-hitter in the AAA championship this May. The Nutz offense is softer than that of the other four teams likely vying for the title, but they have been known to get hot and stay hot. They are a fiery bunch capable of playing spoiler this week.
And finally we will address the Cardinals, the team I help out with. With the second seed, the Cardinals may have the easiest road to the title game due to the second round bye we will likely receive. There is essentially only a one in three chance that we will face the Thunder within the first four rounds, and we have the deepest pitching staff by a lot. Our six on the mound is probably All-State 1st Teamer and NMJC signee, Tim Bailey, and he stacks up quite favorably against other sixes in the league. The six is key because he probably has the title game’s start on full rest. Our one is likely Eli Freese of FHS who signed early at UNM. With a high-80’s fastball and three plus secondary offerings, he can get both sides of the plate out. He also is capable of closing games on only a day’s rest and will likely move into that role starting Sunday. The other potential staff ace is Robbie Ingram of Sinagua High in Flagstaff, AZ. Ingram is a tall lefty with upper-80s stuff as well. Ingram led Arizona AAAA in K’s this season and is easily the league’s top lefty. Our three is Dominic Moreno, a junior at Piedra Vista High in Farmington with bowling ball upper-80’s stuff from a low slot and hammer off-speed stuff. Dominic will slide into the ace role on the reigning AAAA champs with a shot at the POY award in 2011. Expect him to sign at a Division 1 school in the fall. Our four is Andrew Castillo of Carlsbad. Castillo boasts a low-90’s fastball with good command of his change and curve. Andrew signed at Eastern Arizona and is also our everyday catcher and three-hole hitter. Our five is Jesus Carlos, also from Eastern Arizona. Jesus has been one of the top arms in the league for the last two seasons as he is able to generate down angles with good downward life on his stuff. Notable hitters are Freese and Castillo who both hit in the middle of the order as well as UNM-bound Damien Lovato, BYU-bound and leadoff stick, Pierce Arnett of Queen Creek High in Phoenix, Shilo McCall of PVHS (the youngest player in the league but a 2-time all-stater), and Seward County CC-bound switch-hitting CF Steven Polito of Artesia.
The week is always a grind. I played in three city tournaments, won twice, and was never comfortable despite typically satisfactory performances. Growing up in this community is a blessing for baseball players, and the institutions backing the players provide the services, facilities, and personnel that any player could need to develop to their full potential. This is all ultimately generated from the interest and funds produced by the annual CMWS, and the chance to play in “The Series” is the one driving force that is passed from generation to generation of players in Farmington. It continues to produce uniquely high levels of talent given the relatively small population and geographical isolation of San Juan County. No better venue is this talent showcased than during the City Tournament, and this year’s event seems destined to be one to remember.