Monday evening, fans at Ricketts Park saw the final two rounds of the Farmington Connie Mack City Tournament, a night closing out the most grueling and exciting week of New Mexican baseball each year (in this writer’s opinion). Still left on the final evening were the Strike Zone Cardinals of Farmington, the Four Corners Thunder of Durango, CO, and Naataanii, an academy located in Gallup, NM. These were the three teams most local baseball fans including myself anticipated being alive on the final night of the tournament.
Sunday night saw Naataanii knock off the Four Corners Nutz, a very respectable organization (despite their name) rostering numerous standout players, in thrilling fashion and the Cards dishing a mercy-rule victory to the then undefeated Thunder, 14-2, in the nightcap. The Cardinals’ victory came on the back of a dominant mound performance by the heir apparent to the coveted ace role for the reigning state champion Piedra Vista Panthers, Dominic Moreno. Moreno battled a doughnut hole zone and one of the best lineups in Colorado to come away with the most notable victory of his young career. The Thunder was fresh off of a run to the title game of the High Desert Classic the previous weekend and also played in the title game of the annual Andenucio Classic in Pueblo earlier in the summer. The Thunder won last year’s city tournament and ended up 1-2 in the CMWS, their lone victory on the back of ace Jake McCasland, one of the finer players the Four Corners has produced in decades. The Thunder lineup consisted of numerous D1 signees as well as a handful of players returning from their first year of collegiate ball. Many folks believed they were the most talented group in town.
However, Naataanii carried the top seed into the tourney and defeated the Cardinals by way of a Josh Walker (Rio Rancho High) one-hitter in the 3rd Round Friday night. Walker struck out 10, and the Howard County JC signee appeared as advertised given his extensive resume as a 1st Team All-State performer and North-South All-Star. He was able to outlast UNM signee, Eli Freese, who was respectable but not as spectacular as usual. As the week lasted, pairings were determined for the quarterfinals, and the Thunder/ Cards matchup appeared the most intriguing. The matchup was set for Nick Clayton, returning from Midland/Odessa after his first year of the Thunder and Moreno of the Cards. Both pitchers have boasted high 80’s heat with devastating secondary offerings. Moreno has run fastballs upwards of 90 before but tends to sit a tad lower. Clayton did not make it out of the first as Freese cleared the bases with a triple and the offense hit around. Freese and Andrew Castillo (Carlsbad High/ Eastern AZ signee) both homered in the contest as the Cards cruised.
Following the Cardinal win, the three teams met to draw for the bye into the title game. Calling upon numerous deities for assistance, Griffin Phelps snatched the bye, and the team piled around him as though he had actually won something. Everyone understands how meaningful that bye is and what a huge relief it is on pitching staffs. Knowing that the Thunder and Naataanii would have to battle each other for 7 innings before the title matchup was further reassurance to the Cardinals that they were indeed now in the driver’s seat. Naataanii won a close battle, but had to use Walker to close the game out.
So, with the Thunder eliminated and Walker a little tired, Naataanii manager, Tim Campos, had a tough decision to make: start Walker or not? He elected to start him despite the enormous toll on the kid’s arm, and the decision seemed wise through the middle innings. Then, however, in the sixth inning some timely hitting and luck paved the way for the Cards to take the lead. After Seward County signee, Steven Polito, and Freese both reached base without a hit, Castillo skied a fly ball to NM State signee Joe Sena (Rio Rancho High). The ball soared above the lights, and it was lost in the darkness. The ball fell, loading the bases for UNM-bound Damion Lovato. Lovato doubled, bringing in two runners. The following hitter, 3rd baseman Joe Cervantes, also doubled bringing in another two. 2B and Frank-Phillips signee Alex Scanlan capped the scoring with an RBI single. By the end of the sixth, the Cards were up 5-1, and that was all lefty Robbie Ingram would need. Ingram led Arizona AAAA in K’s in 2010 and is headed to Yavapai in the fall. Ingram is regarded as easily the top southpaw in Farmington this summer, and he finished the game allowing just 2 runs.
As the celebratory dog-pile ensued on the mound and head coach, Griffin Phelps, was doused with Gatorade during his postgame interview with the Daily Times, the Cardinals assumed a role that every league champion has assumed since 1965. Immediately the coaches began discussing what players to add to the roster before the Series, which does not begin until August 6th and what events to attend in the meantime. Most of this remains somewhat undecided but should be clarified within the next few days. The Cardinals opening round matchup is against one of the DBAT Mustangs groups of Dallas, and there exists a very realistic chance that the first arm they face will be that of Archie Bradley of Broken Arrow High. Bradley is generally regarded as a potential 1st Round arm and will easily be the toughest arm most of the Cardinals have ever faced. That truly is what the CMWS represents, though, long-shot odds for the host team in front of thousands of fans on the surface they have grown up treating like holy ground.
I want to spend the last paragraph paying homage to what I view as the most talented summer league Farmington has seen in over a decade. The fact that the top three teams all were comprised of draft picks, entire lineups of collegiate-bound players, and all-staters says a lot about where the league is headed in the future. It is rare for metro players to leave Albuquerque for the summer, but numerous high profile guys did. It is also rare to see such strong representation from the southern part of the state. Hopefully next year’s league can continue to bring in the state’s top talent.
In other news around town, Eddie Carl signed his first professional contract with the Royals yesterday. Carl had a very successful collegiate career with Eastern Arizona and later as a Lobo and continues a long line of pitching excellence at Piedra Vista. From Jason Ray to Mike Dunn to Eddie Carl to McCasland and hopefully to Moreno, Panther arms tend to have a great deal of success in the game. Good luck, Eddie.