By Ben Brooks -- firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- Two nights ago, the Winchester Royals won a game that had many fans at Bridgeforth Field scratching their heads.
In Thursday night's 2-1 Valley Baseball League playoff loss to Covington, Winchester players and coaches left similarly befuddled.
Despite getting a combined no-hitter from starting pitcher Corey Williams and reliever Jorge Marban, the Royals fell to the Lumberjacks in Game 1 of the second-round playoff series.
The best-of-three series resumes tonight with Game 2 in Covington.
"That's just sacrilegious," Royals centerfielder Timmy Cross said. "You don't lose a no-hitter. We put runners in scoring position. If we had gotten a couple of key hits we could have won this game by a couple of runs. I guess that's why they give us three games."
"I've never seen it happen," Lumberjacks manager James Conrad said of winning despite being on the wrong side of a no-hitter. "In the playoffs, though, you'll take it."
The Royals (25-22), the top remaining seed after all four higher seeded teams were eliminated in the first round, stranded 11 baserunners, including eight in scoring position.
In the ninth, Cross led off with a double into the right-center gap. With many of the 456 fans who attended still in the stands and making plenty of noise, Covington relievers Brian Jordan and Ryan Shook calmly retired the next three Royals to end the game.
Trailing 1-0 in the seventh, the Lumberjacks (24-24) got all the offense they needed with the help of three walks and a Winchester error.
With one out and the bases loaded, Covington's Adam Browett hit a high chopper toward first base. Winchester's Jordan Steranka fielded the ball cleanly and fired home to get the force out. His throw was low and got by catcher Aaron Dudley. In addition to Sherman Johnson scoring from third, J.J. Muse came around from second for the go-ahead run.
Winchester took a 1-0 lead in the fifth on Steranka's run-scoring sacrifice fly.
Williams (3-4) received the hard-luck pitching loss despite his best outing of the summer. Marban, who has quickly become Winchester's most dependable arm out of the bullpen, worked three full innings and struck out six.
"I pitched good and kept my team in the game," said Williams, who had a perfect game going into the fifth inning and finished with nine strikeouts and four walks. "But you just want to win in the playoffs. It's not about me, it's the team."
In Tuesday's first-round, series-clinching victory over Woodstock, the Royals survived a strange play at the plate when the River Bandits nearly scored two runs on a wild pitch. Now, Winchester must shake off an even more bizarre loss.
"We caught a couple of bad breaks tonight," said Royals manager John Lowery Jr., who was ejected late in the game for arguing balls and strikes with home plate umpire Tony Carilli. "The other night we got those. All we can do is go down there and try to force a Game 3."