By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- Warren County appeared well on its way to a victory over Evergreen District leader Liberty on a chilly Monday night at Bing Crosby Stadium, but a disastrous late-inning collapse quickly derailed the Wildcats' chances of snagging an important district win.
Warren County head coach Vernon Mathews could only watch from the dugout as a costly Wildcats error triggered a meltdown in the top of the sixth inning, allowing the Eagles to erase a two-run Warren County lead en-route to a 12-6 victory.
"I thought we had them beat. We just let it slip away there in the sixth inning and made it very difficult -- we really let it slip away, didn't make a couple plays," Mathews said. "A couple plays and we could have been out of there still up 3-1. One error turned into a mental error ... it just mushroomed. Then they started hitting the ball too and they got some confidence."
Warren County (8-6, 2-3 Evergreen) had cruised up to that point, holding a 3-1 lead over Liberty behind the arm of senior Joey Catalani. The left-handed Catalani allowed just two hits over the first five innings before finding trouble in the sixth.
Catalani led off the inning by hitting Eagles senior Wyatt Teller, who moved into scoring position with one out on a sacrifice bunt and then scored on an RBI single by Logan Aylor to cut the Wildcats' lead to one.
The Wildcats then committed an error on a line drive off the bat of Coy Brown that, if caught, would have doubled up Aylor -- who was running on the pitch -- at first base to end the inning. Instead, the miscue put runners at second and third with one out, and the Eagles took advantage.
Eagles No. 9 hitter Ryan Fogle delivered an RBI single to tie the game at 3, and two more runs scored on a fielder's choice and a wild pitch to give Liberty (12-4, 6-1) a 5-3 lead. Liberty scored three more times in the inning to take a commanding 9-3 lead.
The Eagles' win was a monumental one for the program, which sealed its first Evergreen District regular season title in school history. Liberty coach Jeff Crane said the pressure of trying to lock up the school's first district title played a factor in the Eagles' sluggish start.
"I think it was a combination of nerves, cold and all that combined. We were playing uptight because we knew what was on the line," Crane said. "Once we scored some runs things loosened up, and we felt better then."
Liberty managed a run in the first inning on a balk by Catalani before the senior settled in. Warren County answered with a run in the bottom of the first on an Eagles error, and the Wildcats added a run in the third and fourth innings on an RBI triple by Jontae Rollins and a single by Tyler Post (4-for-4, RBI, two runs scored), respectively.
"We swung the bats a lot better than we have the last couple of games. We've been in a bit of a slump, so I was pleased with that," Mathews said.
The Wildcats added three more runs in the bottom of the seventh inning on RBI hits by Austin King and Cody Tharpe, and a groundout by Blake Cockrell.
Catalani went 5 1/3 innings while allowing six runs (two earned) on six hits and five walks and two hit batters. He also struck out six. John Reith came on in relief of Catalani, and he allowed six runs (three earned) in 1 1/3 innings of work.
Andrew Summers picked up the win for Liberty, going six innings while allowing three runs on eight hits, two walks and five strikeouts.
Warren County is back in action today at home against Brentsville before meeting up with Liberty again on Thursday.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org