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A sizzling season

SANTA FE, N.M. — After an unmitigated disaster of a season a year ago, with a revolving door of managers and players, and fans who were feeling no heat, the Santa Fe Fuego are back, baby.

It’s fun to be back at the ballyard again, said manager T.J. Zarewicz.

Heading into Thursday’s late home game against Alpine, el Fuego holds a smoking 15-5 record and a 2½ game lead over the Cowboys in the Mountain Division.

And general manager Yvonne Encinias credits the manager for a big part of the turnaround.

“We’ve been having some good crowds,” she said. “It’s definitely an improvement from last year. We have an excellent team in place. An excellent field manager. He’s done just tremendous work in the preseason to get some very talented players on board. He built the mound himself. The batting cage for his players came out of his own money. It’s definitely been an improvement and it’s showing in our record.”

What’s also helped is regular schedule that sees the team at home Thursday through Sunday, with road games Monday through Wednesday.

Devin Lopez and his Little League team get to meet the Fuego players and take the field with them for the national anthem before the start of a game at Fort Marcy Field on June 9. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Not surprisingly in cozy Fort Marcy Park, it all starts with hitting.

“For the most part, we’ve just been slugging the ball,” Zarewicz said. “Putting the ball in play hard and limiting our strikeouts.”

The team’s top 10 batters are mashing the ball at .325 or better, with Nick Gotta clubbing it to the tune of .397, while Aaron Stubblefield checks in at .384, with David Stone at .383 and Caleb Baker at .375. Each has more than 20 RBI, which comes out to better than one per game.

“We’ve been putting a lot of runs up,” Zarewicz said. “We have a tremendous lineup.”

Add in to the mix a pitching staff that somehow has also excelled and the makings of a potential championship team are unfolding.

A big part of the success on the hill goes to dual role Louis Ortega, who is the pitching coach and staff ace with a 3-0 record and 2.40 earned-run average.

“He’s doing a fantastic job with the pitchers right now,” Zarewicz said. “I’m very happy with what he has done.”

Ortega was not the first choice as an assistant coach, but sometimes changes happens for the better.

“I did have an assistant coach lined up and it ended up falling through,” Zarewicz said. “I asked him to help me out to be my assistant. He’s been a tremendous help.

“Louis is right next to me during the games that he’s not pitching. It’s great having a second mind helping out.”

Honestly, given the far-too-comfy confines, any ERA south of 5.00 is doing some serious work on the mound.

Of the normal starters, Dan Karasinki is 2-2 with 4.50 ERA, while relievers Dillin Sunnafrank and Dylan Norris are stifling opponents, each with an ERA under 1.00.

“Pitching is something that I love,” Ortega said. “And teaching, too. I am trying to give 100 percent to help them out because I want them to move out and up. That’s what it’s all about, to keep moving up.”

As far as the double duties, it’s a juggling act that Ortega has already mastered.

“When I’m pitching, I don’t worry about being a coach,” he said. “But the other four days, I worry about being coach.”

That’s been a combination that’s en Fuego thus far.