By Brian Eller - firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- Players call it a "slap."
It sounds more like a violent occurrence than a softball move, but for Warren County's Ariel Asher, it's her specialty. There's not much to the slap, but when effective, it can help put the Wildcats' leadoff runner on base.
"My job is to hit the ball down the base line and sprint toward first base," Asher said. "I know if I can make good contact on it, I can usually sprint it out to the bag."
On Monday night Asher did just that, leading Warren County's offense with a 3-for-3 performance and helping the Wildcats to a 3-1 Evergreen District tournament play-in game win over Kettle Run.
In the circle, Warren County's success starts with starting pitcher Nicole King. In the batter's box, however, it starts with Asher. Her job is simple: get on base, usually by means of the slap.
Although just a freshman, Asher's not intimidated when it comes to swinging the bat. Not even a speedy fastball causes her to back off. Instead, she chokes up on the bat, sticks it out over the plate, and steps toward the mound. And against the Cougars, it didn't take long for the move to work.
In the first inning, Asher used the slap effectively, taking the second offering from Kettle Run starter Christine Bowman to left field for a base hit. As she rounded first, the speedy Asher noticed no one was guarding second base, so she took off and slid in for the leadoff double. And after a sacrifice from King moved her to third, third baseman Brianna Caison hit a sacrifice fly to left field, bringing Asher in to put Warren County ahead, 1-0.
In the third inning, Asher again found success using the slap, this time reaching base on a bunt to third. That gave Warren County runners at the corners with no outs, but three straight outs kept the Wildcats from putting anything else on the scoreboard.
King, meanwhile, was her typical self. Through 32⁄3 innings, the sophomore had a no-hitter going and allowed no runners to pass first base after four frames. King finished with one hit allowed, and struck out 17 in the win.
"I thought tonight we played a pretty well-rounded game," King said. "I thought we hit the ball well, and my defense is always great behind me. Those [early] runs always help and that was the case tonight."
After Paige Partlowe scored in the fourth inning to give Warren County a two-run cushion, back-to-back dropped strike threes from catcher Taylor Bass helped Kettle Run pick up some momentum. Bass was able to gun down the first runner before she could reach first, but Kettle Run's Carly Karanovich beat out the throw, giving the Cougars just their third base runner of the night.
Following a stolen base from pinch runner Michelle Farmer and a walk issued to Dana Wallace, Kettle Run had runners at the corners with one out, despite two strikeouts from King in the inning. The Cougars called a double steal and though Wallace was out at second, Farmer came in to score to cut the deficit in half.
The Wildcats responded right back, however, as Asher reached base for the third time to lead off the fifth inning, singling down the third-base line.
"I'll take the first pitch if I can," Asher said. "It doesn't really matter to me. If I see a pitch that I can hit, I'm going to step up there and swing at it."
With a runner on first, King struck out looking, but not before Asher stole second base -- a move that would end in her crossing the plate. On the throw to second, the ball went past the shortstop, sending Asher to third. The throw to third base also slipped past the awaiting glove, giving Asher the green light to sprint all the way home, rebuilding the two-run cushion back for Warren County.
"She's aggressive, that's for sure," Warren County coach Justin Stock said. "We actually started out 7-1 and she was hitting close to .300 and then she struggled a little bit in the middle and so did we, so she's got a lot of speed and we definitely set the pace with her."
Asher's second run of the game was more than enough for King, who shut the door on the Cougars in the final two innings. With the win, fourth-seeded Warren County will face No. 1 Brentsville today, a team known for having a powerful lineup.
"We can beat [Brentsville]," Stock said. "But we're going to have to play perfect to do it."