By Brian Eller - email@example.com
NEW MARKET -- Jordan Owen, the tying run, stood at third base, just 90 feet away. Joe Maloney, the potential game-winning run, was in the batter's box. Standing at the plate with his team trailing by one run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Maloney was New Market's last hope.
Front Royal reliever Zach Calhoon had protected a two-run cushion for the Cardinals so far, but just one out away from a victory, the pressure was squarely on the right-hander's arm.
As he fired a fastball over the plate, Maloney swung, sending the ball deep into left field. Some New Market fans began to cheer. Others could only hold their breath, watching as the ball soared further and further away from home.
As the ball started to descend, it looked as if the New Market catcher would play the role of team hero for the Rebels. But just as fast as he had swung the bat on the pitch, the ball smacked the left fielder's glove, sealing the 4-3 win for the Cardinals and leaving the Rebels just three feet short of the win.
"Knowing that part of the park, it doesn't really travel that well to left-center," New Market manager Corey Paluga said. "But off the bat [the ball] jumped and I kind of perked up a little bit thinking it might have gone, but it fell just short. We were talking in the dugout afterward. If it had been just a few feet further, we'd [be] celebrating."
Had the ball sailed over the outfield wall, it would've taken away from an impressive pitching performance from Front Royal starter Frank Zier.
Early on, however, both teams took turns putting runs up on the scoreboard. In the top of the second inning, Cardinals first baseman Andy Drexel drew a walk, then moved over to third base as Scott Thornburg reached base on an error. Then a passed ball sent Drexel sprinting home, putting Front Royal ahead, 1-0.
In the bottom half of the second, however, New Market answered with a run of its own, as Francisco Ramirez singled to right field, then scored on a fielder's choice by Will Faulkner. Both teams added a run in the third inning.
After the early runs, it seemed both pitchers had settled into a groove, as both Zier and Rebels starter Will Falasco got through the fourth inning unscathed. Then, in the top of the fifth, Front Royal leadoff man Drew Gadaire took a Falasco offering over the left-field wall, putting the Cardinals back out in front, 3-2. After AJ Albee reached on another error, he moved around the bases, eventually scoring on another passed ball from the Rebels.
"Those things aren't going to be there every game," Paluga said. "We're going to make the plays, we're going to catch and field [the ball]. It's the runs you give them, those are the ones you try to cut down on. You have to make them earn every run that they get."
With another cushion to work with, Zier stayed in his groove over the next few innings, shutting down the Cardinals and using a collection of two-seam fastballs and change-ups to keep the hitters off balance.
Front Royal's 4-2 lead carried into the bottom of the ninth, where it was up to Calhoon to close the door on the Rebels. But after back-to-back walks to start the inning, Calhoon was in trouble. Ramirez then hit a sacrifice bunt to move both runners into scoring position, followed by a dropped strike three on Jason Coker, which allowed New Market to cut the deficit to one run, but helped Cardinals to grab out No. 2.
That set up the situation for Maloney, who came to the plate as the winning run and the tying run just down the baseline. After taking the first few pitches, Maloney waited for the right pitch and found it on the fastball down the plate. Maloney connected, but as the ball sailed into the outfield, that was exactly where it would stay, as the Cardinals pulled in the final out and escaped with the win.
"We stayed away from trouble for most of the game," Front Royal coach Joe Scarano said. "We went to the closer in the eighth inning, which is something that we aren't real comfortable with. We've got a setup guy who has a tender knee, so we kind of rolled the dice there and we were very fortunate to get away with the win."