By Jerry Holsworth - firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- After blowing an early lead, Winchester trailed by a run with just six outs left Sunday in its Valley League game with Covington. The Royals fought back with six eighth-inning runs to defeat the Lumberjacks 12-7.
"A lot of people don't understand this, but a game is nine innings long," Winchester manager John Lowery said. "You have to get them out 27 times, and they have to get you out 27 times. It gets more dramatic as you get to the last few outs, but it's about who scored the most runs, and it doesn't matter whether you get them in the first inning or the ninth."
The drama, however, began almost immediately and held until the last out of the game. After getting Covington out in order in the first, Winchester abused Lumberjacks starting pitcher Jake Joyce in their first at-bat. The Royals smashed four hits, including a double by Steve Sabins and scored three runs to take an early 3-0 lead.
Two more runs in the third and another in the fifth gave Winchester a seemingly comfortable lead.
Royals starter Matt Zahel pitched superbly through his five innings on the mound, allowing just one run on five hits while striking out four Covington batters.
Winchester reliever Zach Keen had little trouble in the sixth, but the wheels came off in the seventh, leading to a stunning Lumberjacks comeback. Stephen Cooke relieved Keen in the middle of the inning, but wasn't able to stop the bleeding. Before the Royals were able to get out of the inning, Covington had scored six runs on four hits and took the lead 7-6.
"Matt did a good job, but his pitch count was up and we didn't want to overwork him," Lowery said. "Both Zach and Stephen have done a real good job for us this season. It's just that some nights things just don't go as well as you want them to, but they're an important part of this team and that usually doesn't happen when they're on the mound."
After two outs to begin the bottom of the seventh, the Royals were able to get runners on second and third with two outs, but a strikeout by Jack Clearly kept Winchester off the scoreboard.
"We've all played this game for a long time," Winchester's Colby Gratton said. "We've all been in just about any situation that can come up. We knew that we had time, and no one was giving up."
Tim Cross led off the eighth and the Western Michigan junior got things started with a double off the right-center field fence. Cross also got the last out of the inning when he flied to center. In between Winchester connected on five more hits including a three-run homer by Cody Gaskill that gave the Royals an 11-7 lead. Gratton, who had a 4-for-5 performance at the plate, drove home Gaskill to end the Royals scoring in the inning.
"I've been swinging it pretty good over the last two games," Gratton said. "I just tried to slow everything down and keep my head still and it worked out well."
Sabins, who was also 4-for-5, got the winning run earlier in the inning when he drove home Kevin Breashear from second on a hit-and-run play. The Royals had a season-high 19 hits.
"It was great to have an opportunity to help our team like that," Sabins said. "But I'm also sure that any of our guys would have done the same thing. We were scattering hits all over the place tonight."