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The Bulldog baseball team breaks the huddle prior to the start of the seventh inning Thursday of their Class 5A state quarterfinal game against Belen at St. Pius. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Baseball is an unpredictable sport.

Each at-bat is like its own miniature game, and the completed puzzle frequently looks entirely different than what its individual pieces would have indicated.

As every team will attest, one-half inning can often make or break you, and unfortunately for the 2018 Bulldogs Thursday afternoon at St. Pius High in Albuquerque, it was the latter.

Artesia outhit Belen. For all but that maddening one-half inning, they beat Belen, just as they did in the teams’ first meeting of the year in the championship game of the Artesia Invitational. But in that lone at-bat, the perfect storm brewed.

The Eagles added five more unearned runs to one gleaned in the bottom of the first to take a 6-0 lead into the third inning of play. And although the boys in orange found their rhythm both offensively and defensively in the final four innings, they couldn’t overcome those five runs.

“That inning, just too many things went wrong,” head coach JJ Ortiz said today. “It seemed like everything was going Belen’s way, and they were able to take advantage of our mistakes. In hindsight, you go back and rethink some of those decisions, but that’s just a part of the game. We needed to make those plays, and we didn’t.”

The ‘Dogs were introduced to Belen ace Jadrian Martinez — and the umpire’s erratic strike zone — over the course of three frustrating initial at-bats. Both the first and second saw Artesia lead off with a base hit, courtesy of Trent Taylor and AJ Estrada, but both were left standing due in part to some head-scratching Ks.

The Eagles, meanwhile, got on the board on the bottom of the first with help from a pair of errors, and the mishaps would continue into the second. Belen was able to load the bases with one away on a single, a hit batsman, and an error, and that series of events set the table for what was to come.

A bases-loaded walk was first, followed by a RBI fielder’s choice, and a RBI base hit. With that, starting pitcher JR Bustamante gave way to AJ Ferguson, who also surrendered a single before being quickly relieved by Taylor.

The Eagles were able to get one more RBI single before Taylor ended the chaos with a strikeout, and that damage done would carry Belen through the remainder of the contest.

Taylor and the Artesia defense held the boys in maroon scoreless through their remaining four trips to the plate, and starting in the bottom of the fourth, the ‘Dogs began chipping away at the plate, as well.

An Estrada RBI single to shallow left-center and a RBI ground out by Robert Fernandez made it 6-2, and the Bulldogs were able to cut the Eagles’ lead in half in the fifth when Taylor — aboard with a two-out double — scored on an error.

The Diamond ‘Dogs had proven themselves capable of putting together big innings of their own throughout the 2018 season, and the bottom of the sixth gave every indication Artesia was about to blow things wide open.

Aaron Natera singled up the middle to start the at-bat, and with an infield base hit off the pitcher by Fernandez and a Jacob Orona hit by pitch, the Bulldogs had the bases loaded with just one away. Unfortunately, however, they’d remain that way, as a pair of strikeouts ended the threat and left Artesia with one final half-inning to respond.

It got off to a promising enough start, as Taylor reached on an error and was doubled in by a Taylor Null blast to the center-field fence, again with only a single out on the board. But the late rally proved to be just a bit too late, as a strikeout and fly out to left brought the game, and the season, to a close.

“Another thing about this tournament is that it’s single-elimination once you get to the quarterfinals, and sometimes, it’s not always the best team that wins that one game,” said Ortiz. “A lot of times, it comes down to which pitcher is on his A game, and Belen’s pitcher had a really good day. Give credit to him — he’s a really good pitcher, he’s been good all year, and he was better than us for that game.”

It was a frustrating turn of events, particularly as a rematch with top-ranked Goddard stood on offer had the Bulldogs advanced to Friday’s semifinal round. But true to form, the boys in orange did not stop fighting till the final out, something of which they can be proud.

“I was really happy with how our guys fought back,” Ortiz said. “We had some chances at the end to tie or take the lead, and it just didn’t work out, but they never quit.”

That level of perseverance was a hallmark of the 2018 ‘Dogs.

“Our guys competed all year, they got better all year, and they really stuck together as a team,” said the coach. “And that was really what we were working on all year — getting these guys to care about each other, and they did. They built relationships with each other that are going to last a long time.”

Artesia will lose just a trio of seniors to graduation this season, but the shoes they leave behind will be difficult to fill. Null, Fernandez and Miguel Martinez — who was forced to miss the playoffs due to a concussion — have been a sturdy part of the team’s foundation for the entirety of their high-school careers, and their loss will be felt acutely.

“Our seniors had a great year, and I’m really excited for their future,” said Ortiz. “I know they’re going to do big things when they leave Artesia, and like we told them, this is a game, and you guys are better people and better men for playing this game.

“I look forward to hearing from them and keeping track of them. They’re not only good baseball players, they’re good young men, and they’re going to be really good people going forward. It’ll be exciting to see them do great things just like they did for us these last four years. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of seniors to start my head coaching career off with.”

With the bulk of the squad returning in 2019, however, Ortiz is excited for what’s to come.

“With these younger guys coming up, we have a really good base established,” he said. “We also have some guys coming up from JV that are going to contribute, so I think the future is bright.”