By Brad Fauber - firstname.lastname@example.org
STEPHENS CITY -- After splitting the first two meetings of the regular season, Sherando and Millbrook met for the third time on Tuesday with the Northwestern District regular-season title up for grabs.
Both teams battled through a back-and-forth, emotionally charged affair, but it was Sherando which came out on top with the 4-3 home victory over the Pioneers. The Warriors locked up the regular-season title with the win.
"We knew coming in from last week, we knew that this was going to be the make it or break it game," said Warriors sophomore catcher Chase Smallwood. "We knew that if we lost, [Millbrook] had a chance to be district champs."
It was apparent from the start that the game was going to be a close-knit battle.
After Millbrook (13-4, 7-3 Northwestern) stranded a runner in scoring position in the top of the first inning, Sherando (15-2, 9-1) forced Pioneers starter Lane Spinks to labor through a 30-pitch inning in the bottom of the frame.
Taylor Loudon led off the bottom of the first with a single for the Warriors and came around to score on a double to right-center by Jacob Carney (2-for-2, two RBIs) to give Sherando an early 1-0 lead.
But Spinks was able to escape the inning without further damage being done while stranding two Sherando base runners in the process. Spinks settled in after the first inning, going five innings while allowing four runs on seven hits and striking out four, but was slapped with the loss.
"He has given us a chance to win every game that he's toed the rubber," said Pioneers coach Brian Burke of Spinks. "We're gonna battle through those things, he's been in situations like that before and found ways out. To minimize the damage that could have been done is a testimony to how good he has done for us all season long."
Millbrook didn't back down after the first inning, taking a 2-1 lead in the top of the second as the Pioneers found some success against Warriors starter Darrell Thompson.
Jeremiah Eaton led off the inning with a towering double to left-center, which was immediately followed by a bunt single by Ryan Hartigan. A sacrifice bunt by Spinks put runners on second and third with one out, and a balk by Thompson, his first of the season, allowed Eaton to score.
Hartigan then scored on a groundout by Zach Hughes to give the Pioneers a 2-1 lead.
Millbrook threatened to add to its lead in the top of the third when two more balks by Thompson allowed Pioneers leadoff batter Jacob Jaye to reach third with two outs, but the Warriors thwarted a double-steal attempt by Millbrook by nailing Jaye at the plate when he attempted to score.
"There's no question this game had a playoff atmosphere about it," said Warriors coach Pepper Martin. "Early on, Millbrook was able to get some runners on and Darrell could've gotten rattled, particularly with the balk calls, but he maintained his composure and made some big pitches and kept the damage to a minimum."
Following the back-and-forth script, Sherando answered with a run in the bottom of the third inning when Loudon, who led off the inning with a double, scored on a sacrifice fly by Carney to tie the game at 2-all.
The tie held until the top of the fifth when Millbrook's Bruce Keenan doubled to lead off the inning and scored on a double play ball to give the Pioneers a 3-2 advantage.
But Sherando was once again quick to respond when Smallwood slapped a two-out single down the right field line with the bases loaded to score two and give the Warriors the 4-3 edge.
"I was nervous coming up to bat because I knew if Tyler Quinn got on first then it would be bases loaded," Smallwood said. "I knew once I got two strikes on me he was going to throw me a curveball. I just sat my bat out there and poked it to the right side."
Thompson went six innings for Sherando, while allowing three runs on seven hits and struck out six. He is now 7-0. Tre Porter picked up his third save with a scoreless seventh inning.