By Jeff Nations
FRONT ROYAL -- As Randolph-Macon Academy's baseball team untangled from a dog pile on the pitcher's mound to assemble for a team photo session Friday afternoon, onlookers were treated to the musical stylings of Neil Diamond.
The Yellow Jackets even belted out the chorus to Diamond's signature hit, "Sweet Caroline," after dispatching visiting Highland School 7-2 to win the school's first Delaney Athletic Conference tournament in recent memory -- maybe ever, according to Yellow Jackets coach Robert Locklear.
Though R-MA's home field would never be mistaken for Fenway Park, home of the other noted "Sweet Caroline" aficionados, the Boston Red Sox, the song was even more appropriate on Friday. After all, it was the Yellow Jackets' own Neil -- Dutton, that is -- who was cranking out the hits at the plate and preventing them on the mound for seven solid innings.
"I can't even express my feelings right now, I'm so happy," said Dutton, a senior and four-year starter for R-MA. "My teammates played terrific today."
Dutton was pretty terrific, too, allowing just three hits over seven strong innings to stifle upset-minded Highland (9-5). The fourth-seeded Hawks entered the championship game on a high after stunning No. 1 seed Seton in Thursday's semifinals, and early on it looked like the Hawks still carried that momentum against No. 2 seed R-MA.
Highland's Chris Ross broke up a scoreless game in the top of the second with an RBI double, and Hawks starting pitcher Tyler Zimmerman held down the Yellow Jackets for the second straight inning in the bottom of the frame.
But in the third, R-MA (12-5) used aggressive base-running a couple timely hits to rally for the lead. Andre Lake led off and beat out a chopper to third base for an infield hit, then stole second. Dutton followed with a single to left and also stole second to put runners at second and third. Griffin Duy plated a run with a sacrifice fly RBI, and K.J. Graham drove in another with a single.
The speedy Graham then stole second and third, with the second theft drawing a wild throw from the catcher that ended up in left field. Graham dashed home to score and the Yellow Jackets had a 3-1 lead.
"They're a good-hitting team, especially their 2-3-4 hitters," Highland coach Micah Higgins said. "That part of the lineup is probably one of the strongest in the conference, and they showed it today."
The Hawks saw a potential rally fizzle in the fourth, when Demitri Batistas hit a smash right past Dutton's head. Instead of a hit, Batistas' liner was snared by R-MA second baseman Chris Bell, who then flipped the ball back to second to complete a snazzy double play.
"Honestly, when I saw that ball come back at my face I thought I was done," Dutton said. "Then I turned around and heard a glove pop, and I looked back and Chris is turning a double play at second. Just unbelievable -- that saved me right there. That saved me big."
Highland's woes worsened in the bottom of the fourth, when Zimmerman left the game with no outs after experiencing chest tightness. R-MA's Edwin Guyette and Lake greeted reliever Graeme Wright with back-to-back singles. Dutton came through with the Yellow Jackets' third straight single to drive in a run, and Duy followed by crushing a pitch to right-center sailed over Highland's outfield and started rolling on R-MA's fence-less expanse.
"New pitcher, I was just looking for a first-pitch fastball," Duy said. "Me and my dad always talk about looking for that first-pitch fastball, and it was right there. It felt great off the bat. I guess it just kept right on going."
Thomas Abell capped the four-run rally with an RBI double, staking Dutton to a six-run lead.
"Once we gave a lead to Neil, we knew he's just going to rare back and throw strikes at you, make you hit the ball," Locklear said. "And that's what he did."
Duy had a strange day. The senior drove in three runs but didn't make it to the end, drawing an ejection in the bottom of the sixth while standing on second base. Locklear said Duy and several Highland players were yelling back and forth after Duy was hit by a pitch.
Before that, Highland did plate one last run in the top of the inning on Andrew Williams' RBI single. That was one of the few times a Highland batter found a hole. The Hawks played without all-conference leadoff hitter J.P. Graham, who was batting .550 this season before missing the last three games. Even with Graham, Highland faced a tough test against Dutton.
"It wasn't our day," Higgins said. "Sometimes it's hitting them where they're not, and it just didn't work out for us today."
Travis Pullen, Lake, Dutton and K.J. Graham each had two hits apiece for the Yellow Jackets, who piled up 11 hits in their season finale.
"That might be one of the best hitting performances we've had in a month," Locklear said. "We've just been winning basically on our pitching and getting on base."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>