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Fuego open season tonight with handful of familiar faces

May 24, 2018

It’s baseball season again in Santa Fe and, if Wednesday’s batting practice at Fort Marcy Ballpark is any indication, city officials might be wise to put in warning signs at the playground next to neighboring Magers Field.

With a lineup loaded with left-handed power hitters, the Santa Fe Fuego are going to threaten the integrity of anyone within earshot of right field’s short porch at the ol’ ballpark.

The Fuego open their season Thursday night with the first of a four-game series against visiting Alpine. Between now and late July, the team will play 37 times at Fort Marcy.

Multiply that by the number of potential bombs hit to right and it’s safe to assume a few of them will wind up somewhere in the playground.

One of the main culprits will be the top newcomer to the team’s talented infield, third baseman Chris Kwitzer. At 6 feet, 210 pounds, he sent a handful of baseballs screaming into the distance during Wednesday’s workout, the team’s last before officially raising the curtain on its seventh season in the Pecos League.

“I’m trying not to even look that way because, yeah, I see what’s out there,” Kwitzer said.

After narrowly missing the playoffs last year, the Fuego return with a roster that’s got a handful of familiar names, but one that promises bigger things both on the mound and at the plate. Back for his third season as skipper is manager T.J. Zarewicz.

“We’re going to be good, I can tell you that,” he said. “A lot has gone into putting this team together and, I’m telling you, this is a confident group.”

The team will feature a five-man starting rotation and an infield with returning veterans like Aaron Stubblefield at second and Robert Garza at short. It may eventually include catcher Eric Maria, one of the most popular players in team history who remains home in his native Dominican Republic as he tries out for a spot on a traveling national team.

The outfield has vet A.J. Flores in left and will add the experienced Daniel Aldrich in the coming days, but pretty much everything else is new. The starting rotation features four of the five players who are new to the team.

“Pitching’s been tough to find this year,” Zarewicz said. “I think we’ve reached the generation of player that feels entitled to play at the next level, they feel that they’re going to get drafted, but they’re not. They firmly believe that they’re going to get drafted.”

He said some college players, particularly those who play in the Northeast where winters are long an other sports get more attention, get overlooked by pro scouts. An example is Kwitzer, a recent graduate of Buffalo, N.Y., who was playing in a summer league back East when he saw a flyer about a tryout Zarewicz was organizing in Boonville, N.Y.

Zarewicz knew right away that Kwitzer was too talented to not be playing at the next level.

“He’s one of those guys coming in here who, if he hits and plays the way I know he can, won’t be here long,” Zarewicz said.

Sounding like every other player who’s come to Santa Fe from points unseen, Kwitzer said his journey this far West was, to say the least, an eye-opener. He flew from Buffalo to Chicago, then to Phoenix and, finally, a commuter flight to Roswell.

After that came a four-hour drive to Santa Fe with teammate Mike Annone, a native of Wilmington, Del.

“I was expecting to see a city, like big buildings,” Kwitzer said. “We’re rolling in and we’re like, where’s the city? We just see these hills and clay-looking houses everywhere. I mean, it’s pretty neat. Even when we were rolling up to the city area, the streets were really narrow. It’s something different.”

Pitcher Zach Hoffman and catcher Ambrose Romero are recent graduates of Colorado State-Pueblo, the same school that produced Thursday’s opening-night starting pitcher, Kyle Lazcano. It was Lazcano who helped recruit Hoffman and Romero to the Fuego and, for Romero, it’s a bit of a homecoming.

He is the only player on the roster from New Mexico, having graduated from Eldorado High School after being named All-State twice for the Eagles. He batted .306 this spring for CSU-Pueblo and will start behind the plate.

The back end of the bullpen has closer Dillon Sunnafrank, a mid-90s flamethrower who jettisoned Santa Fe midway through last season after getting promoted to Salina, Kan., of the American Association.

“That was the point last year where I felt like things turned around for us in the wrong direction,” Zarewicz said. “You lose a 95-mile-an-hour fastball out of the bullpen and it’s going to hurt you. Really, though, that’s what this team, this league is all about. We’re about moving players on to better leagues and better teams. If that means sacrificing wins for guys getting a chance to move along, so be it.”

Annone will start the year at first base while the outfield will have Flores in left, Dan Pellinen in right and Danny Beaver in center. Beaver played for former Cleveland Indians pitcher Len Barker at Notre Dame College in Ohio, the same school that has former American League Rookie of the Year Joe Charboneau serving as hitting instructor.

Zarewicz is technically a player-coach and is listed on the roster as an outfielder. A pitcher by trade, he said he is always on the lookout for fresh arms.

“You gotta find the dogs, the gritty guys that don’t care about the field, don’t care about whatever,” Zarewicz said. “They just want to play and want the opportunity. I don’t want a guy that’s going to question the altitude or the field or the league. That’s a tough thing to find, but that’s the guy we want.”

HOSTS NEEDED

The Fuego are still in need of host families. Every player on the team is housed with a team booster willing to open his or her home for the duration of the season, which runs through late July.

If interested, contact the team’s general manager, Yvonne Encinias, at yencinias13@aol.com, or call or text at 505-204-2093.

PLAYOFFS

The Pecos League’s three-division alignment won’t do much to change the playoff format this year. Like last season, six teams move onto the postseason. The three division winners advance automatically with three more bids going to teams with the top overall winning percentage, regardless of division.

The Fuego were one of the last teams eliminated from the 2017 playoff race. They have not made the postseason since 2015.

ROTATION SET

Santa Fe’s starting rotation has Lazcano in the role of ace, with Julian Devora taking the mound Friday, Yale Hughes going Saturday, Ismael Pena starting Saturday and Jeremy Erisman getting the nod for the first road game Monday.

Erisman and reliever Hunter Pearson were teammates at Pepperdine, making them two of the few ex-NCAA Division I players on the roster. Another is Garza at shortstop. He played at Texas Southern.

GO GET ’EM

Zarewicz said the team’s approach at the plate this summer is pretty simple.

“Realistically guys have green lights until they prove me wrong,” he said. “We’re not a dictatorship here. We let our guys play, and I’m going to let them put numbers up.”

That means lots of free swinging and plenty of opportunities to steal or take an extra base.

“We’re a league where this is the last stop for a lot of guys, so emotions run high sometimes,” Zarewicz said. “Guys are legitimately fighting for their career, so that bang-bang play at first base is a life-changing decision. Some people might not see it that way, but I sure as hell see it that way. The players know what’s at stake. A lot of the fans might not realize it, but there are times in these games that emotions run high.”

If You Go

Thursday: Pecos League opener, Alpine Cowboys at Santa Fe Fuego, 6:05 p.m. at Fort Marcy Ballpark

Tickets: $6 all seats (children 7 and under admitted free)