By Brian Eller - firstname.lastname@example.org
STRASBURG -- With one swing of the bat, Sheldon Stickley knew the ball had a chance to leave the park.
Already trailing by six runs in the first inning, Warren County's Frank Barrientez had just thrown a fastball up in the zone, well off of his target location, and Stickley made him pay. The junior took the offering and sent it sailing over the left field wall for his first home run of the season.
That three-run blast capped off a nine-run first inning, propelling Strasburg to a dominating 17-2, five-inning win over the Wildcats in the semifinal game of the sixth Annual Rams Hardball Classic.
"I had a feeling it was [out of here]," Stickley said. "It just felt really good off the bat. Today we swung the bats a lot more, tried to take advantage of that aggressiveness and we were able to hit the ball really well."
It didn't take long for Strasburg (5-1) to gain the upper hand Friday, as a combination of strong hitting from the Rams and woeful pitching from the Wildcats allowed the home team to take a commanding lead before the first out was recorded.
Strasburg's first six batters reached base, four of them drawing walks from starter Cody Hindman. All six runners would come in to score, putting the Rams ahead and sending Hindman off without recording a single out.
With Barrientez in to try to right the ship, Warren County (3-4) was able to get out of the inning, but not before Stickley's shot to left field put the Wildcats in a deep hole, one that would get deeper just one inning later.
"We didn't have a fair pitching matchup," Strasburg coach Jeff Smoot said. "We were able to pitch a lot higher in our rotation than what they were. Clearly with the two teams there's not much of a gap between them and we were just able to pitch a little higher in our rotation."
The nine-run cushion was plenty for Strasburg starter Zach Cover, who was a force both on the mound and at the plate. While he picked up four RBIs in the win offensively, his performance on the mound was equally as impressive. Riding a curveball that kept the Wildcats off balance, Cover was stingy through the first two innings, allowing two hits while striking out the side in both frames. Cover finished with eight strikeouts, throwing four innings and keeping the Wildcats off the scoreboard.
"Their kid's an outstanding pitcher," Warren County coach Vernon Mathews said. "That's the first time I've seen him in a while. His curveball was probably the best we've seen and that just tied us up in knots."
With Cover firing on all cylinders on the mound, Strasburg was never in danger of surrendering the lead, but that didn't stop them from piling on the runs. After batting around the order in the first inning, the Rams repeated the feat in the second, scoring seven more runs thanks to a two-run single by Stickley and two errors by the Wildcats, giving Strasburg a 16-0 lead heading to the third.
"I think it shows that we can score a lot of runs, put a bunch up on the board and get behind our pitchers," Cover said. "We had a bunch of quality at-bats and since we scored runs throughout the game, it showed we were pretty well focused and we didn't back off much."
With the game in hand, Strasburg eased its foot off the pedal a bit, replacing starters Derek Buckley and Stickley, while Warren County turned to senior Kit Schindler, who made his first appearance of the season, to close it out. Schindler kept the damage to a minimum, allowing one run in the third inning, but keeping the Rams off the board in the fourth. By the time Warren County could muster any offense in the final frame, the outcome had been decided.
After the game, Mathews tried his best to focus on the positives, but realized this was a loss that wouldn't be forgotten so easily.
"It's a wash for us," he said. "We had way too many errors tonight, but it's also hard to play defense when you're walking so many people. That's about all I can say."
There isn't much time for Warren County to lick its wounds, however. The Wildcats will face off against Moorefield (W.Va.) today in the final day of the Classic. The Yellow Jackets were shut out 10-0 in the earlier game Friday by Goochland, who will face Strasburg tonight for the title.
As for who will get the start against the Bulldogs tonight? Let's just say Smoot is leaving that one a secret.
"Well, I think we're going to have to go back in the coach's office and kick that one around a little bit," he said, chuckling. "We'll see."