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Bulldog third baseman Aaron Natera fires to second for a force out during the top of the seventh of Game Two against Los Alamos Saturday at Brainard Park. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

The Bulldog baseball team didn’t get the clean sweep it looked like they were easily headed toward in their Class 5A State Tournament first-round series against Los Alamos this weekend at Brainard Park.

After run-ruling the 12th-ranked Hilltoppers 10-0 in six innings Friday, the ‘Dogs’ bats took a brief vacation Saturday. They were unable to produce the timely hits they’ve oft delivered over the course of the 2018 season thus far in Game Two, and the result was a 4-1 loss and a forced Game Three.

And while Artesia’s offense remained off kilter in the deciding bout Saturday afternoon, they were able to manufacture the runs they needed to eliminate Los Alamos, 5-3.

Ultimately, that’s all that matters. Artesia is moving on.

“We’ve kind of seen that this year in different series – the Goddard games and once against Roswell – where we had a little bit of a letdown,” head coach JJ Ortiz said Saturday. “But I was really happy with how we came out and played in that third game today. We go the job done.

“The top 16 teams in the state were playing today, and you can’t overlook anyone. Los Alamos did a good job of throwing some pitches today that kind of kept us off balance, and we just didn’t make adjustments at the plate like we should have. But we regrouped for the third game and played well enough to move on.”

The boys in orange had few issues Friday evening against the ‘Toppers.

With junior hurler JR Bustamante on the mound, the Bulldogs committed just a single error behind him, posting the defensive shutout in a game that saw Los Alamos advance runners past first just thrice.

The ‘Dogs got off to a good start at the plate, as well, taking two runs out of both the first and second innings on an Aaron Natera RBI single, two wild pitches, and an error.

Artesia tacked on a fifth run in the fourth on a passed ball and, with one away in the bottom of the sixth, mounted a rally that would see them cut the contest short.

Taylor Null drove in Artesia’s sixth run of the game, followed by a two-RBI double from Natera, and after Jacob Orona allowed Natera home as a bases-loaded hit batsman, an errant throw back to the pitcher allowed AJ Estrada to follow, ending the game, 10-0.

Bustamante finished with four hits and six strikeouts through five innings of work, while Null was 3-3 at the plate with a triple and a RBI, Bustamante 2-3 with a double and a triple, and Natera 2-4 with a double and three runs batted in.

With Hilltopper senior Jacob Rutten on the hill Saturday morning, however, the ‘Dogs could get next to nothing going offensively.

Artesia went scoreless through four complete in Game Two, leaving runners stranded on second and third in the corresponding at-bats, while Los Alamos compiled a 3-0 advantage on RBI doubles from Vince Marciano and Jacob Castille, and an Arthur Steinkamp base hit.

The Bulldogs finally busted up the shutout in the bottom of the fifth when Bustamante – on with a walk – stole second and scored on an error in center. But two more runners were left standing in that inning, along with three more in the sixth and seventh as Artesia went down in defeat, 4-1.

The ‘Dogs were just two hits behind the Hilltoppers in the contest, 7-9, but could not manage to effectively string them together. Orona took the loss on the mound with six hits and three earned runs allowed, and Bustamante and Cooper Flores led offensively, going 1-2 and 2-4 respectively.

With Los Alamos freshly motivated, the Bulldogs had a decision to make going into the deciding bout.

“We just kind of talked about how we needed to make adjustments at the plate and stop helping out their pitcher,” Ortiz said of Artesia’s between-game discussions.

They were able to put those adjustments in effect almost immediately, notching two runs in the bottom of the first in Game Three on a double to the left-field fence by Natera, who, as starting pitcher, then continued to hold the ‘Toppers scoreless through five at-bats.

That gave Artesia time to add what turned out to be a crucial pair of insurance runs in the second and fourth on a Bustamante RBI fielder’s choice and triple.

Los Alamos was able to find a rhythm in the top of the sixth, using a single, back-to-back doubles, and a wild pitch to slash the ‘Dogs’ lead to one, 4-3.

Junior Trent Taylor came on in relief to log the final two outs of the inning, however, and Artesia got back a bit of their breathing room in the home half on a double-steal-turned-error that made it 5-3. Taylor and his defense then held the Hilltoppers at bay in the top of seven to end the series.

Natera claimed the W with five hits and three earned runs through five-and-one-third, and the Bulldogs managed to close out the contest with just a four-hit effort, one apiece from Taylor, Natera, Robert Fernandez and Bustamante.

“Our pitchers all did a good job this weekend,” said Ortiz, “and for Trent to come in and close things out for us today was huge.

“I was happy overall with how our guys responded, and we want to thank everyone for their support in our last home games.”

With the 2-1 showing, the Bulldogs moved to 18-11 on the season as they advance to the Class 5A state quarterfinal round. There, they’ll take on No. 4 Belen (22-7) at 3 p.m. Thursday at St. Pius High School in Albuquerque.

The Eagles also went 2-1 in their first-round series with No. 13 Aztec, winning the opener 9-2 before dropping Game Two, 9-8 in eight innings, and coming back to close things out, 12-2.
Artesia and Belen met early in the season at the Artesia Invitational, with the Bulldogs taking that contest 5-4 for the tournament championship.

“They’re a really good team, and we know they’ll be throwing their best pitcher, so we just have to be ready to play,” Ortiz said. “The winner moves on from here on out, so our approach is just going to be to play as hard as we can and see what happens.”