By Brian Eller - firstname.lastname@example.org
WOODSTOCK -- Just before the ninth inning, Woodstock skipper Don Foltz went to starting pitcher Oscar Almeida in the dugout. The freshman from the University of New Mexico had already thrown eight scoreless innings, but had to get the green light from his coach before he could head back out to finish the game.
"He just said, 'This is your game, you go and get it,'" Almeida said. "I said, 'All right, it's mine.'"
Four batters and three outs later, Almeida backed up his coach's confidence, tossing a complete-game shutout and leading the River Bandits to a 1-0 win over the Winchester Royals in Valley League action on Wednesday night.
"[He was] just filthy," Foltz said. "Even when he got behind, he battled back. He had a couple of 3-2 counts and he was able to get the strikeouts. The kid battles out there."
In his last appearance, Almeida gave up five runs against a tough Haymarket team and surrendered the lead for Woodstock, leaving the young right-hander a little unsure of his stuff on the mound. On Wednesday night, however, the Royals' hitters and those watching were sure of what they saw from Almeida.
The pitcher's duel got under way early, as both Almeida and Winchester starter Dustin Ward came out firing. After issuing a walk in the first inning, Almeida faced the minimum number of batters over the next five innings, taking a no-hitter into the top of the fifth frame. Ward, meanwhile, was just as solid, allowing just one hit, a double down the right-field line, through the first five innings to keep the game scoreless.
"He threw great," Winchester manager John Lowery said. "If he throws like that every night out we're going to win a lot of games, so no complaints there. His first night he threw around 70, 75 pitches and tonight he went a little longer. You could see he had good velocity and he's going to give us a chance to compete every night."
After six innings neither Ward or Almeida had decided to let up, as the game remained scoreless with one hit to each team. But after Almeida pitched his way out of a jam in which the Royals had runners at first and second with no outs to start the seventh, the River Bandits broke through in the bottom half of the inning.
With one out, catcher Miguel Rodriguez singled to right field, then moved over to second base after left fielder Kenneth Burns drew a walk. Then, Woodstock's No. 9 hitter, Zach Tobolowsky, stepped into the box and hit a shallow fly ball into right field, just out of reach of Winchester right fielder Tim Cross. Despite Cross' best effort, the ball hit the ground, sending Rodriguez in to score and putting the River Bandits ahead, 1-0.
"Obviously you have to be able to score some runs," Lowery said. "Defensively we played well, we pitched well, we just didn't get a run across and [Woodstock] had a chance, they got a break on the ball in the outfield and they took advantage of it. That was the difference in the game."
That one run was all Almeida needed, as the hurler retired the side in the eighth inning. Then, after allowing left fielder Marc Perdios to reach base to lead off the ninth, he shut the door on the Royals, picking up the complete-game victory.
"I just learned how to pitch smarter," Almeida said of his performance. "I told myself I wanted to pitch smarter [tonight] instead of blowing right by them, so this time I just learned how to mix my pitches, mix my speed, keep them off balance and that was the key tonight."