By Jeff Nations - email@example.com
WINCHESTER -- With each seventh-inning pitch in Tuesday's Northwestern District baseball tournament championship game, Sherando senior Zach Wagner inched further and further away from his comfort zone.
Normally a starter this season, Wagner pitched the final three innings of an 8-6 victory over host Millbrook as a reliever.
Wagner sailed through the first two innings, but found himself in a bona fide save situation in the top of the seventh -- save some runs, save the game ... mainly, save himself.
"After I got everyone 0-2, I couldn't throw a strike," Wagner said. "I wasn't nervous. It probably looked like I was.
"... I guess I was just trying to be too fine, not give up the game-winning hit. So I was just not trying to leave it too much over the plate like I usually would."
Down 8-4 heading into the final frame, Millbrook (16-6) started a one-out rally when Bruce Keenan drew a walk. Jacob Jaye followed with a single and Matt Fazenbaker fought off a trio of third strikes for a walk that loaded the bases.
Ethan Mathews then singled in a run for the Pioneers to cut the deficit to three runs, but Wagner recovered to strike out Bradley Smith with the bases still loaded for the second out.
Wagner and the Warriors weren't out of the woods just yet, as Jeremiah Eaton worked the count for walk to force in a run.
The bases were still loaded, and Wagner knew he was down to his final batter. Millbrook's Ryan Hartigan battled for a full count, but Wagner got him with a fastball for a swinging strikeout for a hard-earned save.
"He was in a little bit different situation, but he's certainly been in some jams during the regular season and he pitched his way out of them," Sherando coach Martin said of Wagner. "He's 5-0 this year, and he's pitched out of some trouble."
Sherando (19-2) had reason to feel somewhat secure after breaking a 4-4 tie in the bottom of the fourth with a three-run rally. Taylor Loudan scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch, a typically bold base-running maneuver by the Warriors. Pioneers reliever Bradley Smith's pitch in the dirt skidded away from the plate about 10 feet to the left, leaving Millbrook catcher Ethan Mathews time to run down the errant ball and try a back-handed flip back to the plate.
"The reason why I sent him was where the ball was blocked to -- it was blocked going away from the plate, so the only way [Mathews] could get it there was a quick pivot down on his knee or to try and backhand it," Martin said.
Tyler Quinn capped the rally with a two-run single.
The Warriors' rally was an answer to Millbrook's own comeback, after the Pioneers fell behind 4-0 after two innings. Sherando's Tre Porter doubled in a run in the first and Chase Smallwood singled in another off Millbrook starter Nick Strosnyder. Loudon's RBI single in the second made it 3-0, and Porter struck again with another RBI double to boost the lead to four runs.
Warriors left-handed starter Darrell Thompson, meanwhile, appeared in complete command through the first two innings as he sat down the first six batters in order.
But in the third, Millbrook's Laith Abunasser poked a single down the left-field line and Strosnyder drew a walk. Keenan moved them over with a sacrifice bunt, and Abunasser scored on a balk call.
"He looked like his usual dominating self, but in the third it seemed to me that he completely lost his focus, being able to locate his pitches, starting to get behind in the count on hitters," Martin said. "I don't know if the balk call was the culprit, but it certainly seemed like it to us."
Jacob Jaye followed with an RBI double before Thompson escaped further damage. His troubles continued in the fourth, as Strosnyder drove in a run with a single and the Pioneers tied it on a Sherando error. In between, a heads-up play by Sherando's Quinn at first base helped limit the rally when he snared Abunasser's popped-up bunt and fired back to second for a double play, the first of three the Warriors turned in the game.
Martin, who had Thompson on a pitch count and wanted to get some work in for Wagner, sent the right-hander out for the final three innings. Wagner escaped trouble in both the fifth and sixth with timely double plays, but the seventh was an adventure.
"It's different," Wagner said. "You've just got to put it all out there. There's nothing to save, so I just tried to give it everything I have."
Porter led Sherando's 10-hit attack with a 4-for-4 effort at the plate.
"Millbrook's always a tough team to play," Porter said. "It's our rival, so every time we come in here to play we know it's not going to be a cakewalk. We're going to have to battle and hit around, and make plays in the field like we did."
Jaye had two hits for the Pioneers, who move on to next week's Region II tournament with a road game at Powhatan on Monday. Sherando will play on Tuesday after earning a first-round bye.
"I'm pleased -- getting down 4-0 early, we could have packed it in, felt sorry for ourselves or just looked ahead to next Monday's match-up," Millbrook coach Brian Burke said.
"These kids continued to compete and battle throughout. Then to get down again like we did and then give that effort in the seventh inning, I'm so proud of the heart and effort that these kids showed this evening."