By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- The end of the Valley Baseball League regular season is rapidly approaching, and every game is important for Front Royal as the Cardinals find themselves in a tight battle for the fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division.
Front Royal had a chance to force its way back into a tie for that fourth spot after dropping three straight games when it faced off with visiting Aldie on Friday night at Bing Crosby Stadium.
The Cardinals were able to take care of business, finding some late-inning offense and holding off a furious rally by Aldie in the top of the ninth inning to secure a 7-6 win. Front Royal, which has six games remaining, is now tied with Aldie for fourth in the North.
Front Royal (17-21) held a 3-2 lead going into the bottom of the eighth inning before its offense -- which has struggled for much of this season -- erupted for four big insurance runs in the bottom of the inning.
Aldie (16-20) made things interesting in the ninth with a four-run outburst of its own, capped by a three-run home run by A.J. Zarozny off Cardinals reliever Wesley Cox, but Cox was able to shut the door and secure the win.
"It was a must-win game," Cardinals coach Jake Weghorst said. "[Starting pitcher] Justin Anderson got his first win of the summer -- he pitched really well. John Houston came in and pitched really well, and Cox did good, he just left one pitch up.
"I was real happy with our guys going into the bottom of the eighth ... we kind of exploded there and got some runs. We haven't really done that all year."
Holding tightly to a one-run lead in the bottom of the eighth, Front Royal quickly loaded the bases with no outs against Senators reliever Douglas Gunderson with a pair of hits by Brandon Tierney and Andrew Seigel and an Aldie error on a sacrifice bunt attempt by Anthony Gonzalez.
Cardinals cleanup hitter Brent Morris then stepped to the plate with the Senators' infield playing in and ripped a sharp grounder through the left side of the infield to score a pair of runs to give Front Royal a 5-2 lead.
"I knew he was pitching me outside, so I just kind of stayed back on that," Morris, who went 2-for-4 with three RBIs, said. "I just wanted to hit it hard somewhere -- hit it hard on the ground or even in the air. Just as long as I can get my team a run, it's all good."
Gunderson was able to retire the next two Cardinal batters, but Tim Leather -- a pitcher making his first appearance in the starting lineup at designated hitter for Front Royal -- delivered his second double of the evening to plate two more important insurance runs.
"In my first two at-bats, I saw the ball well I just wasn't putting good wood on it," Leather said. "My third and fourth at-bats I was just looking for fastballs that I could sit back and drive, put my foot down."
Front Royal entered the ninth with a comfortable five-run lead, but Aldie quickly scratched across a run against Houston -- who came on in relief of Anderson in the seventh -- thanks to a walk and two Cardinals errors.
Weghorst pulled Houston in favor of Cox to face No. 9 hitter Zarozny, who crushed the second offering from Cox well over the fence in left-center to cut Front Royal's lead to 7-6.
Cox was able to rebound, striking out the next two batters before getting Matt Malacane to ground out to second to end the game.
"We've had a lot of close games and I was thinking 'No way this is about to happen, we're going to have to win it in the ninth,'" Weghorst said. "They got the home run, but home runs are rally killers -- they clear the bases and they've got to do it all over again. Wes did a good job of leaving that, getting two quick outs and finishing it off."
Front Royal scored the first run on the game in the bottom of the first inning off Senators starter Graham Tebbit (7 IP, five hits allowed, three runs), as Gonzalez chopped an RBI infield single that scored Tierney, who led off the inning with a triple.
Aldie responded with a run each in the third and fourth innings off Anderson to take a 2-1 lead before Front Royal regained the lead for good with two runs in the sixth on RBI singles by Gonzalez and Morris.
Anderson tossed six-plus innings for the Cardinals, allowing two runs (one earned) on four hits and five walks.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org