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Jacob Orona slides safely home for Artesia’s first run of the game in the top of the second inning. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

When it comes down to the Elite Eight, anything goes.

Seedings are nice for reference purposes but ultimately mean little in unfamiliar confines under the pressure of knowing that, from here on out, it’s win or go home.

No. 3 St. Pius, at 18-9, was certainly favored on paper over No. 6 Artesia (16-12), but the Bulldogs went into this morning’s quarterfinal bout with a calm demeanor and plenty of confidence. And they very nearly logged the upset.

Unfortunately, however, this time around, paper beat heart.

Sartan junior pitcher Ryan McGaha was able to keep the Bulldog batters from stringing together the hits they needed despite outbatting St. Pius on the game, seven hits to four. And while both teams committed a pair of errors in the field, the ‘Dogs’ proved more costly, allowing the Sartans to post two unearned runs.

JR Bustamante delivers to the plate during the second inning as third baseman Trent Taylor looks on. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Artesia sophomore JR Bustamante, meanwhile, pitched more than well enough to win with just four hits allowed through six complete, but the Bulldogs also left seven runners stranded on the day to Pius’ three.

“Take away two pitches, two different plays, and it’s at least tied,” head coach Lee Johnson said following the game. “But that’s baseball. You never know which pitches are going to be the most important.”

The Sartans drew first blood in the contest, plating two on a base hit by McGaha and a throwing error. The ‘Dogs were able to cut that lead in half in the top of two, however, when back-to-back singles by Jacob Orona and Dominic Madrid put two on with one away, and an AJ Estrada sac-fly to right brought Orona home.

Pius reinstated their two-run cushion in the home half of the third on a sacrifice fly in foul territory that saw second baseman Cody Fuentes flip over the short fence in right making the catch.

Bustamante and the defense would seat the Sartans in order in their fourth and fifth at-bats, while Artesia put runners in scoring position in the fourth and sixth but were unable to capitalize.

St. Pius then took advantage of a leadoff error in the bottom of six to score what turned out to be the game-winning run on a sac-fly to AJ Estrada in center. Artesia mounted a rally in the top of seven, with Taylor Null launching a monster triple to right-center to score Cody Fuentes and Granger sending Null across on a RBI ground out.

Those runs would have tied the game but for Pius’ freebie in the sixth. As it was, they weren’t enough to stave off the loss, 4-3.

“I was pleased with the way our kids battled and didn’t give up,” said Johnson. “We left seven guys on, so we had some opportunities, but we just didn’t capitalize early in the game. Basically, that was the ballgame.”

Catcher Robert Fernandez lays out to apply the tag to Pius’ Dylan DiLorenzo in the bottom of the first, but the runner was ruled safe on the play. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Bustamante finished with one strikeout and one walk in addition to his four hits and two earned runs. At the plate, Orona was 2-3, Estrada 1-2 with one RBI, and Null 2-4 with one run batted in.

“It was a good season,” Johnson said. “You hate it to end that way. Nobody likes losing, and I thought we were as good as that team. They were just a little bit better than us today, and that’s the way it goes. But it was a pretty good turnaround from an 0-5 start to a six seed.

“Nobody would’ve thought that after an 0-5 start, and that’s why we play tough schedules – that’s to get us ready for this stuff right here, and I’m pleased with the way the kids battled all year. We got a lot of things accomplished, beat Goddard two out of four in district and we haven’t ever done that before. It’s just disappointing, of course, but we had a good year.”

The ‘Dogs will suffer some key losses to graduation this year, saying goodbye to Granger’s muscle at the plate, the unflappable fielding of second baseman Fuentes and shortstop Madrid, and the versatility of speedy outfielders Tanner Harris and Daniel Moncada.

But Artesia will welcome back the remainder of its primary roster, with five of those athletes having served as consistent starters and the remaining four receiving significant varsity experience this year.

“We just appreciate all the seniors,” said Johnson. “I’m pleased with their effort and wish it could’ve turned out different for them, but we’ll get over it and move on. I hope they have success in the future in whatever they decide to do.

“We have a really good nucleus coming back, and we’ll be okay next year.”