By Jeremy Stafford - firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- The first two and half innings of the Evergreen District tournament play-in game at Bing Crosby Stadium on Monday were hardly indicative of the final four and half innings, and because of it, Warren County's early distress was replaced by the thrill of a 5-2 win over Liberty.
Indeed, through those curious first 15 outs, it was Warren County pitcher Tyler Moody -- who agonizingly labored through every batter he faced, giving up two runs in the process -- who remained in the game, while Liberty pitcher Stephen Klier, churning through the Warren County lineup, took an early exit in the third inning.
But forgive Moody for his slow, fickle start, when he struck out three batters in the first inning, yet plunked one on the shoulder and walked another. Forgive him for the 57 pitches he hurled in his first three trips to the mound -- that's just how he seems to operate, though he can't explain why.
But at least on Monday there were some bona fide reasons: Monday marked Moody's first start in two weeks -- he missed his final two regular-season starts because a collision with a wall at Warren County High School left him with a concussion and a chipped tooth.
Not to mention the duress he must have felt pitching in an elimination game, one that was delayed two hours because Liberty failed to show up on time for the original 5 p.m. start.
But as per usual, the sophomore found some semblance of his old command by the fourth inning, throwing only 13 pitches to three batters in the frame. After giving up four hits and two runs in three innings, Moody worked a clean sheet for the rest of his complete game.
"All season, the first two innings have been my problem," Moody said. "So after that I usually settle down, get into a groove.
"But the first two, it wasn't a surprise -- I knew we'd hit the ball, so just as long as you can get out of it with two runs or so, I knew we'd come back and win."
Moody struck out five batters looking, and another batter swinging. His fastball singed the black; his curveball crashed through the top of the strike zone, then spilled out the bottom.
And supporting Moody's endeavors: An inspired defensive effort that committed only two errors, and a hearty performance at the plate, aided by a basket full of Liberty miscues.
With Warren County down 2-0 in the third, Wildcats sophomore Damien Wright, on what should have been a groundout to first base, reached safely when Klier failed to cover first.
A batter later, Klier slipped while mishandling a bunt from Tyler Post, looked to have injured his leg, took a warm-up pitch, and stayed in the game.
A wild pitch and a Wright score later, Klier left the game, replaced by Derek Dueling, who was nipped for two more Warren County runs.
"That was very important," Warren County catcher Connor Hutzell said of breaking into Liberty's bullpen early. "It sets them back, makes them play slower.
"It helps because as they get relievers they get slower, less control."
Hutzell scored the first of two runs against Dueling, collaborating with Will Hoffmaster on a double steal from third base.
The win gives Warren County its eighth of the season, and sees the Wildcats to their first postseason win since the split into two high schools three years ago. Warren County will travel to top-seeded Brentsville today in an Evergreen District semifinal game at 7 p.m.
"The first year [since the school split] we won seven games," Warren County coach Vernon Mathews said. "Last year we took a huge step back: We had a lot of young kids, we won two games the whole season.
"This win tonight is No. 8 for us, so we've improved there, and then it's also our first tournament win, so it's another step forward for the program."