Valley League: Cardinals 5, Rebels 1By Greg Brill -- email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL -- For the first time all season, Mike Grace was being asked to pitch out of the Front Royal bullpen on back-to-back nights.
With New Market making a pitch to rally past the Cardinals, Grace faced a tough situation with the bases loaded, one out, and Front Royal holding on to a two-run lead in the seventh inning Thursday night.
Grace handled the pressure, with, well, grace.
Grace retired No. 3 batter Jordan Owen on an infield pop-out and followed by striking out designated hitter Brent Mikionis to get out of the frame.
Grace added a perfect eighth and the Cardinals tacked on two more runs to snap a two-game losing streak and win 5-1 in Valley Baseball League action at Bing Crosby Stadium.
"I guess it's kind of like being a utility player," Grace said of his different roles to pitch for the Cardinals, which might require long- or short-relief. "It might be [getting called on in] the second inning, it might be the fifth, it might be the ninth, whenever. I'm always ready when they call on me. Just be ready to keep throwing."
Grace has been nothing short of terrific for the Cardinals (10-7). The right-hander out of Lipscomb has compiled a 3.38 ERA in 16 relief innings, walking just two and striking out 16 in six appearances.
Grace pitched 11⁄3 innings on Wednesday in Front Royal's 5-4 loss at Harrisonburg and was ready to come in again after Josh Huguet, who followed starter Greg Van Sickler, gave up a hit and two walks to last just a third of an inning to begin the seventh.
"I mean, the coaches have counted on me all [season], just like at school, for the big situations," Grace said. "Thus far, I've been able to come out on top.
"It's all about confidence and I came in with all the confidence in the world they weren't going to score. Then it's all about going out there and doing your job."
The Rebels (4-10) were coming off a two-game win streak, but could not do enough damage with good rallies in both the sixth and seventh.
Held down through six innings by Van Sickler, New Market finally put a run across in the sixth. Owen reached on a one-out error, and Kevin Brown's bloop down the right-field line with two outs drove in Owen and moved Dan Shafferman over to third.
From there, Van Sickler buckled down to fan Joe Maloney for his eighth and final strikeout. Van Sickler (3-1) won his third straight home start and still has not given up an earned run since June 6 in his first start against Winchester.
When Grace shut the Rebels down in the seventh, New Market manager Corey Paluga knew an opportunity had been lost.
"If we score one or two [runs] in the seventh, or even the sixth, it's a different ballgame," Paluga said. "It's just trying to maintain that consistency throughout the ballgame and trying to come up with the big hit at the right time."
The Cardinals got clutch hitting early and late against Rebels' starter Jared Winder (0-1).
James Roche doubled in the first to set up Matt Holland's RBI single to plate Drew Gadaire. An inning later, Stephen Rogers and Gadaire drove in runs with hits to stake Front Royal to a 3-0 lead.
In between, Winder got in a groove and retired 11 straight before getting out of a bases-loaded jam with a line-out double play in the sixth.
"It would have been easy for [Winder] to fold up after the first couple innings, but he came back and showed his competitiveness and was able to string a couple zeroes across for us," Paluga said. "It got us back in the ballgame."
In the bottom of the seventh, Roche made the Rebels pay for playing him shallow in the field.
"I did notice that [Mickens] was playing up a bit, but going down 0-2 [in the count], I just wanted to get my bat on the ball," Roche said. "[Winder] left a pitch up and I was able to drive it."
With two runners in scoring position and one out, Roche lifted a two-strike fly well over Kenny Mickens' head in left for a two-run double and the clinching hit.
The Cardinals got hits from seven players and Roche and Will Walsh led the way with two apiece.
"Our mental preparation for this game was a lot better than our previous two games," Roche said. "Our [manager Joe Scarano] just told us, 'It's in our hands.' We were able to figure it out and we were able to have a little more energy and a little more intensity. It turned out well for us."
Shenandoah University closer Kyle Scallion, who signed earlier Thursday, pitched a scoreless ninth for Front Royal in his debut.