By Brad Fauber
WINCHESTER -- There's a commonly used sports adage that warns against giving a good team too many opportunities. Longtime Sherando baseball coach Pepper Martin likely reiterated that point to the Warriors following Thursday night's Conference 21 tournament championship game at Millbrook.
The Warriors -- who felt they had turned a corner in the first two games of the tournament -- committed six errors on Thursday and couldn't overcome their early mistakes in a 5-4 loss. It was the fourth time this season that Millbrook has beaten the Warriors.
Sherando will travel to the winner of today's Conference 22 championship game between Chancellor and Eastern View in next Monday's Region 4A North quarterfinal game. Millbrook will host the loser.
"We had been playing pretty solid defense as of late and unfortunately we had one of those games tonight where we couldn't make a routine throw," Martin said.
"It's the same old cliché. You cannot give a good team that hits the ball well -- you can't give them five outs in an inning. And we did it not once, but twice."
The Warriors (14-6) committed five of their six errors in the first three innings and found themselves trailing 5-1 after the third, but Sherando was never truly out of the game.
Sherando cut Millbrook's (20-1) lead to two runs with back-to-back sacrifice flies by Hayden Fox and Connor Stevenson in the top of the fourth inning, and a two-out rally in the seventh against Pioneers reliever Colin Benner cut the lead to 5-4.
Warriors senior Marcus Painter started the rally as he beat out an infield single, and a Pioneers throwing error on the play moved him to second. Junior Adam Whitacre then blooped a 1-2 pitch into left-center for a single that scored Painter and cut Millbrook's lead to one run.
"I just knew that Benner can bring it a little bit. I knew that I had to get my front foot down and make contact, make the defense make a play," said Whitacre, who was 2-for-3 with two singles and two RBIs.
Sherando senior Zach Henke then battled through a six-pitch at-bat against Benner, but Henke struck out swinging on a foul tip that was held onto by Millbrook catcher Alex Amos.
"I like the way our team competed, and when we got down early 3-0 to a really good team ... we didn't say, 'Well that's it, we're just going to pack it in,'" Martin said. "They kept competing. But in order for them to beat the good teams like this in regionals, we've got to tighten up and shore up our defense and play with confidence."
Shaky defense didn't take long to burn the Warriors on Thursday, as a leadoff single by Millbrook's Bruce Keenan and a throwing error on a bunt attempt by Trenton Burgreen quickly put runners on the corners in the top of the first.
Sherando starting pitcher Ty Michaud induced an RBI groundout by Jacob Jaye, but another throwing error on a Ryan Hartigan grounder allowed Burgreen to beat a throw to the plate for the Pioneers' second run.
Matt Hendershot ripped an RBI double to deep center to give Millbrook a 3-0 lead before Michaud escaped further damage.
"It seems like every time we play them we just start shooting ourselves in the foot to start off the game," Whitacre said. "... I think maybe some people stress because it's Millbrook. We knew that they beat us three times before. We knew that we needed to win this game to get home field advantage [in the regional tournament]. Maybe some guys stressed, but I don't know. We just need to do the fundamental things and we'll be alright."
Sherando got a run back in the third inning, as Whitacre flared a two-out single to right field to score Andrew Loudan. But Millbrook came back with two more runs in the bottom of the inning thanks to two more Sherando errors.
"We're fortunate in a game like this against a good team [to keep] taking advantage," Pioneers coach Brian Burke said. "... It was good to get up early in the first inning. We had some opportunities, but they also made some great plays in the outfield today that saved probably five other runs."
One of those plays for Sherando came in the bottom of the third inning. After a Hendershot RBI fielder's choice and a Michael Tinsman sacrifice fly, Michaud allowed a single and a walk to load the bases with two outs for the top of Millbrook's lineup. Whitacre made a spectacular diving play on a Keenan fly ball toward the line in right field to end the inning.
"I shifted over towards the gap because usually [Keenan] hits it towards the opposite field. He just got around on it and right off the bat I was like, 'I'm going to have to dive. I'll either miss it or catch it,'" Whitacre said. "I just laid out for it and it fell in my glove."
Fox made another brilliant play in right field in the fourth inning, as he made a leaping grab at the fence on a deep fly ball off the bat of Jaye.
Millbrook starting pitcher Trey Braithwaite pitched five innings and allowed three earned runs on two hits and three walks. Benner allowed one earned run on three hits in his two innings.
Michaud went three innings for the Warriors, allowing five runs (one earned) on four hits, a walk and one strikeout. Reid Entsminger, who hasn't pitched since March after suffering from elbow tendonitis, pitched one inning and allowed a hit and a walk on 21 pitches.
Fox pitched the final two innings for Sherando and allowed just one hit.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD