By Jeff Nations - email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL -- Eric Baker can stop with the pinching, already -- the freshman is firmly and securely a varsity baseball player for Warren County this season.
In Thursday's non-district matchup against homestanding Randolph-Macon Academy, the precocious right-hander demonstrated why by holding the Yellow Jackets to just one unearned run on three hits and no walks in five innings to pick up the win in the Wildcats' 6-1 victory.
That win boosted Baker's season record to 4-0, and lowered his earned run average just south of 1.00 per game.
Baker still sounds a little surprised to be pitching on the varsity squad this year.
"It's an honor," Baker said. "It's great and I'm having fun. I actually never thought I'd be pitching on varsity, but it's great to be here."
Warren County (10-7) did most of its damage in the top of the first inning against R-MA starter Travis Pullen. Damien Wright led off with a single, and Ryan Tierney followed with a bonus infield single when the Yellow Jackets miscommunicated in the infield and allowed his popup to fall to the ground. Tyler Post drew a walk to load the bases, and Frankie Barrientez ripped a single to left field to plate two runs. Two outs later, Baker singled in another to give the Wildcats a quick 3-0 lead.
R-MA (4-11) struck back in the bottom of the inning, as Ryan Otey led off by reaching on an error, Caleb Bratcher singled and Neil Dutton drove in a run with a fielder's choice.
That was all the damage the Yellow Jackets could manage against Baker and reliever Cody Hindman, who pitched the final two innings.
The Wildcats pushed their lead to 4-1 on Tyler Moody's sacrifice-fly RBI in the third inning.
Then in the fourth, Warren County threatened to break the game open. Pinch hitter Julian Bussels delivered a one-out single and moved to second on Pullen's balk, and Tierney followed one out later with an RBI double. Tyler Post greeted R-MA reliever Caleb Bratcher with a run-scoring single to right, but was gunned down at second trying to stretch it into a double to end the rally.
That would do it for the Wildcats, as Dutton came out to shut them down over the final three innings. Warren County finished with nine hits, while the Yellow Jackets managed just four.
"I was real pleased with the way we played defensively," Warren County coach Vernon Mathews said. "Offensively, I think we struggled. Their pitchers kept us off balance."
Pullen took the loss for R-MA.
"Travis did a really good job on the mound," Yellow Jackets coach Robert Locklear said. "He throws a little slow, but he has really good movement."
The Yellow Jackets did hit some balls hard, but had no extra-base hits.
"I should have waited more -- I swung at the first pitch twice," Dutton said. "That was bad, but I felt like I could hit better, I felt like the team could hit better. We only had two strikeouts, so that's a plus."
Mathews was glad for a break from the Evergreen District schedule, and the chance to get playing time for some reserves. Having Baker available to pitch those non-district matchups has been a boon for the Wildcats' record, as well.
"He's pitched against non-district opponents and we've picked his spots, just trying to get him experience," Mathews said. "But he goes out there and he battles."
Tierney and Baker had two hits apiece to lead the Wildcats, who return to district play next Tuesday at Liberty.
The Yellow Jackets start the postseason on Tuesday with a first-round home matchup in the Delaney Athletic Conference tournament. Third-seeded R-MA hosts No. 6 Saint Michael. Game time is 4:30 p.m., in Front Royal.