By Tom Mulherin
The cardinal-red coloring on the Eunice baseball team’s logo has never looked more suiting than now. This team is on fire.
Since starting the season with a poor 2-7 record behind erratic pitching, shaky defense and punchless offense, the Cardinals have reversed their fortunes as winners in six of their last seven games. Both the arms and bats have turned more into weapons than liabilities, and this program is back at a .500 record (8-8) with momentum at its side.
Most importantly, Eunice has vaulted itself into second place in District 4-3A with six straight wins in district play. Its last loss in the district, and only loss, came against district-leading Dexter, and the Cards are set for revenge today with a doubleheader starting at 4:30 p.m.
Head coach Drew Reynolds is really happy with the way his team looks right now, but knows the team can’t relish in what’s already happened.
“Anytime it’s going your way it’s fun, but we’ve got a tough part of our schedule coming up,” he said. “These two games (against Dexter) could determine the district championship. … We don’t get caught up in what’s happened or what might happen, we just try to control what’s in front of us.”
That doesn’t mean we can’t get relish, though. And as far as this whole resurgence goes, it starts with the pitching.
Back on March 27, after a 12-1 loss to the Demons, Eunice – as a team – had a whopping 10.50 earned-run average and a WHIP (walks and hits per inning) of 3.44. A good bulk of both those numbers came from the group averaging nearly two walks per inning. Typical innings leader Mason Caperton dealt with a back injury that kept him from the mound, and save for a couple solid outings over a few innings, the entire staff outside of Logan Gaskins was having a hard time.
But over these past seven games, Eunice has cut the walk rate nearly in half while continuing to limit hits. The Cardinals look more mechanically sound, according to Reynolds, which is evident in the 3.98 ERA and 1.41 WHIP they posted in that span. Throw in 63 strikeouts over 44 innings, and this staff looks to have completely turned it around.
“Our kids are just working harder,” Reynolds said. “We’ve put in a lot of work on the mechanics, and it’s starting to pay off for us. We spent a lot of time doing the simple things, and it’s working.”
A big part of the turnaround can be attributed to the three-pitch mantra the team has, where pitchers simply try to force a play in three or less pitches. But that’s been a philosophy ever since Reynolds took over the team, so an even bigger credit can go to Caperton getting healthy, as that’s been one of the more major changes.
In this stretch, Caperton has pitched in five of the seven games. He’s pitched the most innings with 13 1/3, allowing two hits, 10 walks and just four earned runs while striking out 24 batters. He served three innings of a combined no-hitter with Gaskins against Tularosa on Saturday, and has a 2.11 ERA and 0.90 WHIP in this hot stretch.
His efforts have given other guys more rest, too, which has helped them a good deal. Gaskins has a 3.72 ERA with 22 strikeouts over the span, and Brandon Ortiz has settled down a bit with a 4.84 ERA. Ortiz still has a bit of trouble with walks (13 in his last 8 2/3 innings), but a lot of his ERA over this stretch came from allowing 10 earned runs to NMMI (averages about 10 runs per game). He has 6 2/3 of one-run ball with 11 strikeouts otherwise, and eighth-grader Jorge Ontiveros pitched five beautiful innings against Tularosa by allowing just one unearned run.
“(Caperton) had a little back injury that kept him out for a while, and, you know, he’s one of our guys, one of our top dudes,” Reynolds said. “Having him back in the rotation has taken a lot of stress off the other guys, where they’re not having to pitch back-to-back. Having him back has just given our other guys that much more opportunity to rest.”
Opposing pitchers must be using beach balls in the meantime, as the Eunice offense has erupted for 12.3 runs per game.
Several guys have been exploding with the bats lately, led by Frankie Solis, Caperton, Gaskins, Juan Sosa and Cameron Santa Cruz. Gaskins hit for the cycle against Loving, padding his .476 batting average (10-for-21) while he leads the team with 15 runs and 14 RBI over the seven-game span. His five extra-base hits are tied for second on the team with Sosa, who is hitting .357 with 14 runs and seven RBI. Santa Cruz – hitting .524 with 11 runs and seven RBI – leads with six extra-base hits.
Solis has perhaps been the team’s best hitter over this stretch by batting .733 (11-for-15) with eight RBI, but he’s missed the last few games. Caperton is right there at the top, too, with a .379 average and six RBI.
All of this is without even mentioning Hayden Dean, Noah Mendoza, Jacob Mendoza, Bryce Steele, Garett Bush and Manny Lujan, as each of them have picked up hits, RBI or runs in certain spots. Top to bottom, this lineup is rolling.
“It’s just confidence,” Reynolds said. “They’re having better at-bats. They’ve bought into what we’re trying to teach them. It’s just been a process. We talk about the process all the time and it’s starting to pay off.”
Perhaps the only knock one could make is that most of these huge efforts have come against subpar teams, with three of the games coming against a 0-16 Tularosa team. But Reynolds negates that by saying the strikes are there from his pitchers, and he believes the hitters will continue to see the ball well.
We’ll see today against Dexter.