By Brad Fauber firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- Front Royal faced off with a familiar foe when it hosted Winchester and Royals starting pitcher Stephen Cooke for the third time in Valley League action on Friday.
Cooke entered Friday's game with a 2-0 record and a 1.46 earned run average against the Cardinals this season, and the junior from Indiana University (Pa.) made himself right at home on the mound once again inside Bing Crosby Stadium, propelling the Royals to a 1-0 win over Front Royal on Friday. It was the seventh straight win for the Royals.
Cooke threw eight innings, striking out nine batters and allowing just three hits.
"Third time around, I figured it was going to get tougher, but luckily it all worked out," Cooke said. "Just keep throwing strikes, get the same results."
Cooke had the Cardinals guessing at the plate all night long, and carried a one-hitter into the seventh inning.
It appeared the Cardinals were going to be off and running when Front Royal shortstop Matt Murakami led off the bottom of the first inning with a single, but Cooke settled in and didn't allow another hit until the bottom of the seventh when Cardinals third baseman Kyle Pitts recorded a two-out single.
Cooke felt little pressure on the mound all evening, with the only real threat coming in the seventh when Front Royal had a pair of runners on but failed to scratch across any runs.
"I thought I was attacking the zone pretty well and they weren't hitting anything that hard, so I felt that if I just kept battling we could pull it out," Cooke said. "I was getting ahead in the count, getting a lot of first pitch strikes. I kept the walks to a minimum, which helped out a lot."
Front Royal benefited from strong starting pitching of its own as Garrett Cortright pitched six innings while allowing just one earned run.
Cortright did allow nine hits over his six innings of work, but was able to work around the baserunners, stranding seven Royals runners in all. Cortright struck out six and didn't allow a walk.
"Garrett [Cortright] stuck with a good gameplan, he had a good gameplan against them," said Cardinals coach Clayton Kuklick. "They hit him a little bit, but he was able to execute when he needed to."
The only flaw in Cortright's performance came in the top of the fifth inning when Winchester first baseman Brad Picha smashed his fourth home run of the season -- a solo shot to the left of the flag pole in straightaway center field -- to give the Royals a 1-0 lead.
That small amount of offense proved to be enough for Winchester as Cooke did his part, stranding seven Cardinal baserunners on the night to keep the lead intact.
"[Cooke] has done a good job. He gets strike one, he gets ahead in the count, he throws all of his pitches for strikes," Kuklick said. "He's a tough guy to go against, but we've got to figure it out sooner or later."
Stephens City native Patrick Bankemper came on in the ninth inning for the Royals and pitched a perfect frame, which included a pair of strikeouts, to pick up the save.
Jake McWhirter came on in relief of Cortright in the seventh inning and threw three stellar innings for Front Royal, allowing just one hit and striking out six to keep the Cardinals in the ball game late.
"McWhirter came in and was able to get strike one and keep them off balance from the left side," Kuklick said. "He did his job, kept us right where we needed to be."