By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- Chaz Rutherford knew from the moment he stepped into the bullpen to warm up before Front Royal Post 53's District 16 tournament game at Bing Crosby Stadium on Tuesday that his start had the potential to be his best of the summer.
Maybe it was just a hunch, but Rutherford's presumption proved true as he delivered an outstanding complete-game performance for Post 53 in a 7-2 win over visiting Leesburg Post 34 in the first round of the double-elimination, eight team tournament.
Rutherford surrendered just five hits and two walks while allowing two runs (one earned). The recent Skyline graduate also struck out a season-high nine batters in the 116-pitch effort.
"Today, starting in the bullpen, my arm felt a lot looser than it has recently and I felt like I was throwing with a lot more velocity," Rutherford said. "And my curveball was working, so I was just trying to hit the outside corner and that was working for me all day."
Rutherford's effort on the mound was backed by an impressive display of offense -- Post 53 tallied 14 hits off Post 34 starter Matthew Gloger -- and a reliable defense for much of the game. Post 34 also committed five errors in the game to help Front Royal's cause.
Second-seeded Front Royal gave Rutherford early run support with a run each in the first and second innings, and Post 53's defense was strong until committing a pair of errors in the top of the ninth.
"All three facets of the game were working tonight, and when that happens the other team has to play well enough to beat you," Post 53 coach Danny Wood said. "They didn't hit the ball well enough to do that, so it worked out for us."
Rutherford immediately helped his own cause as he opened the bottom of the first inning with a leadoff single and quickly moved to third on a Leesburg error on a Tyler Post sacrifice bunt attempt. Neil Dutton then brought Rutherford home on a fielder's choice to give Post 53 a 1-0 lead.
Front Royal added another run in the second inning when No. 9 hitter Sterling Jennings delivered a two-out double to center field that scored Heath Almarode.
Jennings had a big night at the plate, going 3-for-4 with two doubles and three RBIs out of the nine-hole.
"I just went in there with the mindset of not striking out," Jennings said of his approach at the plate. "I knew we had to get up and get a lead, so I had to go ahead and try my best out there to just get on base."
The early offense was plenty for Rutherford, who retired 15 of the first 16 batters he faced, including 13 straight batters before giving up a bunt single to Post 34's Lorenzo Calderon to lead off the top of the sixth inning.
Rutherford struck out seven batters during that span, utilizing his curveball to keep Leesburg's batter off-balance at the plate.
"This is the first game my curveball has actually been working. I probably threw, the last couple games, 75 to 80 percent fastballs. Tonight my curveball was working and I was getting them to swing and miss," Rutherford said. "Within the first inning I could tell it was working a lot better than it had been all year. I probably used it twice on each batter."
Post 53 added another run in the fourth inning on Jennings' second two-out double of the night, and Front Royal opened the game up with two more runs in the fifth on a Post 34 error and a sacrifice fly by Patrick McGrath to take a 5-0 lead.
Post 34 finally broke through against Rutherford in the seventh, as back-to-back singles to open the inning by Matthew Irish and Camden Abbey led to Leesburg's first run of the game, but Front Royal snatched that run right back with a score in the bottom of the inning.
Rutherford and Post 53 took a 7-1 lead into the top of the ninth, but the inning began with a Front Royal error that allowed Josh Martin to reach second base and later score on a single by Abbey.
Rutherford got Ethan Carlyon to strike out for the inning's second out before dealing back-to-back walks -- the first two of the game for either team -- to load the bases. Rutherford then got Calderon to strike out swinging on a curveball to end the game.
Post 53 will play two games on Thursday after poor field conditions forced the postponement of one of the tournament games on Tuesday. Front Royal will open with the winner of Tuesday's Stafford Post 290 Nationals/Ashburn Post 2001 game.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org