By Brad Fauber
RADFORD -- Sherando's defense really came on strong in the second half the 2013 baseball season, but perhaps the most important defensive performance for the Warriors came when it mattered most.
With Warriors senior pitcher John Bentley facing a one-out jam with runners at the corners in the first inning of Sunday's Group AA state championship game, Tunstall's Chris Buckner stepped to the plate with a chance to give the Trojans an early lead.
Buckner ripped a pitch from Bentley down the third-base line, but Sherando junior third baseman Logan Bucher, playing up on the infield grass, was there to make a diving backhanded stop. Tunstall's Daymon Totherow was off and running from third on contact, and Bucher's throw to home cut down Totherow at the plate.
That play alone may have saved Sherando, who ended up beating Tunstall 2-1 to capture its first state baseball title in the program's history.
"That was probably one of the biggest plays of the game. We probably would've been down that entire game if that play hadn't been made," Warriors senior second baseman Jacob Carney said. "That was a big confidence booster for us. We knew that we could go out there and keep them off the board."
Bucher said he was surprised to see Totherow running home on the play, and the junior admitted he bobbled the ball slightly before getting off a throw to catcher Chase Smallwood.
"Usually in that situation the runner wouldn't be going home. For some reason he ran," Bucher said. "I bobbled the ball for a second ... just a little bit when I came up. It made me a little nervous."
Perhaps no one on the field appreciated Bucher's play more than Bentley, as it enabled him to escape a first inning that could have easily went in a very bad direction.
Bentley said working out of tight spots is something that the Warriors have made a living on this season, and he was happy to have such good fortune once again in Sherando's biggest game of the season.
"That was a great weight off my shoulders, that was a big second out that we needed," Bentley said. "We really worked out of a jam. I've been working on that all season ... just working out of jams. It was good to do it again right there in the first inning."
Bucher's play wasn't the only big defensive stop that Sherando benefited from in the state tournament.
In the second inning on Sunday, Carney made a seemingly effortless backhand snag on a sharp line drive up the middle before throwing to first to get the out. That play stranded Tunstall runners on second and third.
Both of Sunday's outstanding plays came a day after sophomore Adam Whitacre gunned down a runner at home from center field in Saturday's semifinal game against Amherst.
The consistency of Sherando's defense provided a big boost to the Warriors' pitchers, not just in the state tournament, but for most of the season.
"Our pitchers have trusted that defense," Warriors coach Pepper Martin said. "By the second half of the season, our pitchers knew that they didn't always have to always make the perfect pitch because the defense was going to be there to back them up."
Martin will have the tough task of replacing six seniors when next season rolls around, including the duo of Carney and sure-handed shortstop Taylor Loudan.
"We'll have to retool our entire middle infield next year, which is tough," Martin said. "Loudan and Carney there, getting all those baseballs and turning all those double plays, that's a big part of your defense."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org