By Brad Fauber - firstname.lastname@example.org
STEPHENS CITY -- The last thing Sherando expected in the Region II quarterfinal round was to be locked in a pitchers' duel with its offense struggling to keep its brief playoff run alive -- but that's exactly where the Warriors found themselves when they hosted Monticello on Wednesday.
The Warriors broke right out of the gate with a run in the first inning to take an early lead, but were blanked over the final six innings by Mustangs starter Josh Malm as Monticello pulled off the 2-1 win. It was the fewest number of runs Sherando has scored since a 1-0 win over Washington on March 21.
Things weren't much better in the field for Sherando (19-3) as a throwing error and a pair of passed balls led directly to both of Monticello's runs, spoiling an otherwise solid outing by Warriors senior Darrell Thompson on the mound.
"It was definitely not how we expected our season to end," said Thompson, who tossed a complete game while allowing two unearned runs on just three hits. "Coach [Pepper Martin] said before the game that execution is going to win this game, and we didn't execute and it came back and bit us."
Sherando's offense appeared poised to continue the momentum that carried the Warriors to both the Northwestern District regular season and tournament titles as the Warriors put a dent in the scoreboard early.
Senior Tre Porter stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first inning and ripped an 0-2 offering from Malm into the left-centerfield gap for a one-out triple. He scored during the next at-bat when Jacob Carney grounded out to second to give Sherando a quick 1-0 lead.
"[Porter] said, 'If he leaves a hanging curveball, I'm ripping it', and I was like 'I'll see you on third.' And sure enough, hanging curveball and he hit it into the gap," Thompson said. "I saw him on third and I was like 'here we go', but then it was just one of those things -- the dugout was quiet all day, we didn't have any energy. I just knew something was about to go down."
Thompson's premonition proved correct as the Mustangs responded quickly with a run in the top of the second.
Monticello senior Sam Patterson led off with a triple down the right-field line that worked against the outfield shift put on by Sherando, and he scored when a low 2-2 pitch to Kyle Jacobson got by Warriors catcher Chase Smallwood to tie the game at 1-all.
Sherando had an opportunity to regain the lead in the bottom of the second as the Warriors loaded the bases with two outs, but Malm got leadoff man Taylor Loudan to fly out to right-center to end the threat.
That was as close as the Warriors' offense came to scoring for the remainder of the game as Malm didn't allow a runner to reach second base after the second inning.
Malm pitched a complete game for the Mustangs, allowing an earned run on four hits to pick up the win. He struck out five and walked two.
"This year, the first inning for me has been kind of shaky, but my mentality has been that I can get it back, just keep going," Malm said. "I was just trying to pound the strike zone, that's what coach [Corey Hunt] wanted me to do -- pitch to contact, don't try to blow it by them, and it worked in my favor."
Thompson (eight strikeouts) was equally effective for Sherando, although the senior got himself into some trouble in the top of the fifth inning.
With Mustangs' No. 9 hitter Devin Dickerson, who reached on an infield single with one-out, on first base, Thompson sailed a pickoff attempt wide of the bag and allowed Dickerson to move all the way to third.
One pitch later, Dickerson scored on a passed ball to give Monticello its first lead of the evening.
"You've got to give credit to the entire team, the guys made good reads, they battled with two strikes," Hunt said. "We took advantage of a few miscues and we battled our butts off, and fortunately we were able to scratch across a couple of runs."
Sherando had one final opportunity to potentially tie the game in the bottom of the seventh when junior John Bentley hustled out an infield single to lead off the inning, but Malm retired the next three Warriors hitters to send the Mustangs to the Region II semifinals.
Martin admitted after the game that he felt his players began sensing the pressure to produce offensively as the game wore on, which resulted in many Warriors batters over-swinging and trying to tie the game with one swing of the bat.
"Particularly in the bottom of the fifth and the bottom of the sixth, I thought we were pressing a little bit at the plate," Martin said. "Not necessarily pushing the panic button, but pressing a little bit and trying to do too much instead of staying within the flow of the game and trying to get runners on.
"We went down fighting. This team was so enjoyable to coach, I'd like to have had the opportunity to go a little further with them."