By Jeremy Stafford - firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- Shenandoah center fielder Kevin Brashears sauntered to the plate at Bridgeforth Field on Sunday and rested his bat on his right shoulder.
It was the third inning of SU's game against Ferrum, the Hornets' final USA South game of the regular season, and Brashears was already taking his third at-bat.
His previous two at-bats had been homers -- the first a line drive over the right-field fence, the second a boomer over the left-field fence. Riding on his third at-bat, should he hit another solo shot, was a free dinner at Outback Steakhouse, courtesy of Hornets shortstop Jesse Henry.
Brashears had been the driving force behind Ferrum starter Tyler Easterly's early exit after 1.2 innings, and he wasn't about to treat some flimsy Ferrum reliever any differently.
He saw four pitches: Two balls, a strike and a juicy floater lagging through the heart of the plate. Brashears blasted another high ball toward center field, the scrumptious 'ping' of his bat announcing to the crowd of 227 that this hit, too, was leaving the park.
Brashears was met at home plate with team-wide congratulations for the third time; Henry asked Brashears if dinner could wait until he got his work-study paycheck; and the Hornets set a new record for conference wins with an 8-3 triumph over Ferrum.
"To be honest, I was just trying to get a pitch to drive," Brashears said of his third home run, which ties the Shenandoah University record for homers in a game. "That's what I did the first two at-bats -- I just saw it real well."
Brashears, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of last season's South Regional Tournament, caromed the first pitch he saw over a banner commemorating the Hornets' trip to the Division 3 baseball championships a year ago.
When he stepped into the batter's box in the fifth inning for his fourth at-bat, Brashears lined a single into shallow center field. The shot didn't break the SU record for home runs in a game, but it did break Brashears' bat.
A shame -- that was a good bat.
Indeed, through the first three innings, Shenandoah (28-6, 8-4 USA South) seemed to be hitting with nothing but pristine bats. After SU pitcher Vince Claudio gave up two earned runs in the first inning, Shenandoah scored eight runs of its own in three innings. Brashears was responsible for most of that early production, hitting five RBIs in addition to his trio of homers.
Claudio said he rushed his pitches in the first inning, but settled himself down by the second. He saw five batters in the second, but gave up no runs. He retired the side in the third, relying on an inconsistent curveball coupled with a reliable changeup.
"My arm was lagging behind," Claudio said. "In the second I just came out, slowed everything down, sped the arm up a little bit -- got ahead and got ground balls when I needed them."
The Hornets turned four double-plays: Three while Claudio (2-0) was on the mound and one to end the game.
Though the win sets a record for most conference wins, the Hornets will be seeded third in the USA South tournament, having gone a combined 1-3 against N.C. Wesleyan and Methodist, the tournament's first and second seeds, respectively.
Which is why SU coach Kevin Anderson said today's game at Eastern Mennonite University is so important to the Hornets' postseason aspirations: Should SU fail to qualify for the regional tournament by virtue of winning the conference tournament, Shenandoah will have to rely on a strong regular season performance to garner an at-large bid.
"I wanted to reinforce [today's] game from a regional standpoint," Anderson said. "Last year we got beat twice on championship day, but got an at-large bid, won the regional and went to the World Series.
"The key is to get to a regional -- you can't get to a World Series unless you get there."