From doormat to champion in less than three years.
On Friday night at Kokernot Field in Alpine, Texas, the Santa Fe Fuego captured the first championship in team history by beating Alpine 7-3 in Game 3 of the Pecos League Championship Series, clinching the series 2 games to 1.
The Fuego won all four of their playoff games while facing elimination, overcoming a pair of 1-0 deficits to Trinidad and Alpine by winning the final two games in each series.
They never trailed in Friday’s game, scoring a pair of runs in the top of the first inning and adding two more in the second.
Catcher Erik Kozel, the league’s most valuable player in the regular season, got things going in the right direction almost immediately. He hit the third pitch of the game, a slider over the middle of the plate, off Alpine starter Brett Kennedy just over the wall in left for a solo home run and a 1-0 lead.
“I think sometimes a guy just gets lucky,” Kozel said. “We hadn’t faced him before and we weren’t sure what to expect. That one pitch, he just put it in there for me and I was lucky enough to hit it hard.”
Kozel finished 4-for-6 and had hits in each of the first three innings as the Fuego opened a 4-0 lead after two frames.
Omar Artsen followed Kozel’s homer with a single, a stolen base and a run scored when Chevas Numata laced an RBI single to left in the top of the first.
Artsen then delivered an RBI single to right to plate Nick Billinger in the second inning. Numata followed moments later with a single to left to bring home Kozel to open a four-run lead.
Despite the fast start, Santa Fe missed several golden opportunities to blow the game wide open. The Fuego stranded seven runners in the first three innings, including the bases loaded in the third against Cowboys relief pitcher Anthony Figliolia.
Although shaky in that third frame, Figliolia settled down and retired 13 of the next 15 Fuego hitters he faced, giving up only one hit in the next three-plus innings. He single-handedly kept the Cowboys in it as they eventually got to Santa Fe starter Preston Zachrich.
The team’s winningest pitcher during the regular season, Zachrich worked into the sixth inning before giving way to Austin Carden. Carden’s most recent appearance was a complete game shutout in the Trinidad series, meaning he was taking the mound on just three days’ rest.
He worked out of a jam in the sixth and seventh innings before Alex Teal and Tyler Herr came on to pitch an inning apiece to close things out. Herr, a 6-foot-9 righthander signed late in the season, retired the side in order in the bottom of the ninth in a non-save situation.
He got the final out on a shallow fly ball to center by Tyler Heck.
“That was just a surreal feeling, knowing it was something I’d been dreaming about and thinking about all year. All these amazing things run through your head when you know you’ve really done it. That it’s finally over.”
Alpine owned the league’s best record virtually all season, including wins in five of six meetings against Santa Fe before the playoffs. The league champions two years ago, the Cowboys appeared to have the magic ingredient for a rally after stunning Roswell twice and Santa Fe once with walk-off wins earlier in the playoffs.
It’s something Kozel said he and the rest of the team knew very well.
“In situations like that, where they’ve got someone on the mound making things hard on us and then they’ve got that history of doing things like coming back, all we can do is come back in [to the dugout] and talk about it with each other and figure out what we need to do,” Kozel said.
Zachrich got credit for the win, giving up seven hits with no walks in his time on the mound.
The Fuego had 16 hits, including three apiece from Artsen, Numata and Billinger.
Kozel lauded the efforts of the Fuego coaching staff, particularly manager Bill Moore. The only skipper in team history, he was there when Santa Fe finished last in its first season in 2012, then came a game and a half short of the playoffs last season after closing the year on a nine-game winning streak.
The Fuego led the Northern Division from start to finish this summer, more than doubling the club’s entire win total from that first season in the league.