The Sandia Matadors have been paying attention.
Paying attention to Carlsbad.
Paying attention to Rio Rancho.
Paying attention to those who are paying attention to Carlsbad and Rio Rancho.
“It’s not,” Matadors shortstop David Gunther said, “not just Carlsbad and Rio Rancho.”
The larger truth of it, from Sandia’s dugout, was best expressed by Gunther’s father, head coach John Gunther.
“We think we’ll be in the finals again,” he said.
The Matadors, last year’s Class 5A state runner-up, have quietly been going about their business in the season’s first half, but not a single game this year stamped Sandia’s intentions more capably than Friday’s 12-2, five-inning smackdown of visiting Rio Rancho that began the season’s second half.
It was vintage Sandia.
Righty Ryan Reinhart kept a potent Rams lineup in check, limiting them to three hits.
The Sandia offense put up a dozen runs against one of 5A’s top pitching staffs, which admittedly was let down by a defense that committed four errors.
But more than any of that, the Matadors authoritatively avenged their only loss of the season, a 7-4 loss to the Rams in the semifinals of the metro tournament two weeks earlier.
“This was pretty important,” said Sandia outfielder Danny Collier, the Matadors’ leading (and leadoff) hitter who has nine hits in his last nine official at-bats, spanning three games, including a 3-for-3 outing Friday. “Everyone in the state thought they were the No. 1 team.”
Just in the last week, things have shifted in 5A baseball.
Carlsbad beat the Rams 5-4 last Saturday; Rams coach Ron Murphy said the line is razor thin separating Sandia, Carlsbad — 13-1 after beating Piedra Vista 6-2 on Friday with six runs in the seventh — and Rio Rancho (13-3). John Gunther was inclined to agree with that, Friday’s mercy-rule rout notwithstanding.
But after a difficult 9-3 loss to Carlsbad in last May’s state final, Sandia has a renewed sense of purpose.
“A sour taste, man,” coach Gunther said. “Everyone had that taste for a long time.”
Sandia (now 12-1) returned a majority of its position players, and although the pitching staff is somewhat new at the front end, left-hander Carson Schneider (5-0) and Reinhart (now 3-0) both are proving their worth as an ace.
“Who knows which one it is,” Gunther said. “But we give Ryan and Carson all of our big games.”
“I really want the ball in the big games,” Schneider said. “(But) we’ve got three good starters who can go deep into games, and we have enough pitching to (win state).”
The lineup, led by Collier, who is hitting well above .500 — including a bases-clearing double and four RBIs against Rio Rancho — and David Gunther, who hit a two-run home run, is balanced.
“It’s a veteran club,” coach Gunther, in his second season, said. “They coach themselves. They really do.”
Sandia will enter District 2-5A as the favorite over La Cueva, but even as the Matadors attend to the Bears, Eldorado and Manzano, they’re eyeing a bigger prize.
This is, in large part, because of Carlsbad.
“Watching Carlsbad celebrate last year fueled us,” Collier said. But the Matadors are centering on self.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal