By Brad Fauber - firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- Fourth-seeded Skyline entered Thursday's Northwestern District tournament play-in game desperately searching for some life out of its bats.
The Hawks had dropped four straight games, all in district play, including a pair of back-to-back shutout defeats coming into their neutral-site showdown with No. 5 Handley at Millbrook High School in the tournament's opening round.
Luckily for Skyline, the lumber finally came alive, at least for a half inning, as the Hawks used a three-run third frame to squeak by the Judges, 4-3.
"We've kind of been on a downward spiral these last four games, and it doesn't matter what a team's record is -- when you get a victory, it feels good," said Hawks coach Ben Taylor. "Their pitcher was doing a nice job of just keeping us off-balance -- we hadn't had a hit until that third inning. People throw the ball around a little bit and you put it in play and good things happen."
The Hawks (9-12) trailed 1-0 entering the bottom of the third, before finally finding some success against Judges (2-18) starter Taylor Sandroni.
Skyline starting pitcher Chaz Rutherford (1 for 3, run, stolen base) got things rolling with the first of four consecutive base hits for the Hawks as he smacked a one-out single to center field. One batter later, Rutherford came around to score as senior Barry Smallwood (1 for 3, RBI, run) ripped a sharp liner into center for an RBI single.
Sophomore Sterling Jennings (1 for 2, RBI, walk) followed with a single to left field to score Jacob Sims, who reached on an infield single earlier in the inning, to give Skyline its first lead of the game.
The Hawks took a 3-1 lead when senior Joe Bass got picked off at first base, but was able to get into a rundown long enough to allow Smallwood to score from third.
"We hit enough to get up by one," Rutherford said. "We haven't been hitting real well, but tonight we just got enough that we needed."
Skyline tacked on another run in the fourth inning to extend the lead to 4-1 when sophomore Dakota Smith, who led off the inning with a hustle-double to right field, scored on a lineout to center by leadoff man Nick Helmick.
Handley, who squeezed out a run in the top of the second to open the scoring, responded with a pair of runs in the top of the sixth in what could have been a disastrous inning for Skyline.
Judges senior Ryan Hayes led off with a bunt single before Rutherford issued a walk to Andrew Lins, and Blaine Homan reached on a fielder's choice, in which Lins beat the throw to second, to load the bases with none out.
Rutherford got Sandroni (1 for 2, two RBIs) to line out to center, allowing Hayes to score, and then gave up an RBI single to No. 9 hitter Tyler Broll, prompting Taylor to bring in Bass in relief.
"I wasn't throwing really well off this mound. I couldn't get a groove and I was leaving everything up," Rutherford said. "Usually I try to get on top of my batters, but I couldn't do that tonight. I'm glad my defense worked for me."
Bass got Judges leadoff man Brian Thomas to strike out swinging for the inning's second out, and escaped further damage by getting Nick Dempsey to ground out to second to end the inning.
Bass (1 2/3 innings, no hits, one strikeout) tossed a scoreless seventh inning to pick up his first save of the season in a rare relief appearance. Bass is expected to start Saturday's semifinal game against No. 1 Sherando.
"First time [relieving], I didn't have pressure. I just went in and just threw the ball," Bass said. "It felt good, felt right and everything worked out. [You have to keep a] clear head, try not get anxious, just try to keep throwing your pitches and let them hit it - we've got a defense behind us."
Rutherford tossed 5 1/3 innings while allowing three runs, two earned, on six hits to earn the win. He also walked three and struck out six.
Sandroni threw six innings for Handley, allowing four earned runs on five hits. He walked three and struck out five. Handley also had four errors in the game.