By Eric Butler: CNJ correspondent
LOS LUNAS — Facing an early 3-0 deficit and a struggling starting pitcher, Elida coach Jimmy Ward did what many good baseball managers would do. He inserted a reliever, Caleb Widner, in hopes of holding down Mesilla Valley’s bats and giving his team a chance to chip away at the lead.
And it all might have just worked too, if it weren’t for one sophomore left-hander named Luke Smith. In a 5-0 loss to the SonBlazers, Elida almost never threatened Smith — who struck out 15 hitters and allowed only three hits.
Mesilla Valley (11-6), seeded seventh in the tournament, moved into Friday’s noon championship game at Isotopes Park in Albuquerque against Gateway Christian, a 15-0 winner over Valley Christian in Thursday’s other semifinal.
“We hadn’t seen but one or two lefties all year long,” said Widner, Elida’s only senior in Thursday’s starting lineup. “We just couldn’t pick up on him.”
Widner was summoned to the mound with one out in the second inning. Elida starter Dan Massey had difficulty retiring the SonBlazers the first time through the lineup and after he plunked Will Coppedge to start the second time around, Ward made the switch.
Widner, who allowed four hits in his four-plus innings, pitched out of difficulty in the third inning. He couldn’t do the same in the fourth, when an inning-opening Elida error helped lead to two more SonBlazers runs.
“Caleb did a great job,” Ward said. “He’s our senior, has been our leader all year. He kept the ball low, kept them on the ground, but errors just killed us.”
Meanwhile, nothing ruffled Smith. Only twice was Elida get a runner as far as third base.
“That kid threw real well,” Ward said of Smith. “He’s just a sophomore — it’s hard to believe it. But we just didn’t show up to hit, that’s just all there is to it.”
Elida’s only other hit came with two outs in the sixth, when Massey singled to left. Smith then retired the next four hitters to secure the win.
Ward noted that the two smallest classifications of baseball will be combined back into one for the 2008 season.
“It was a successful season,” he said. “We lose one senior, but we’ll be back.”