By Jeff Nations
WINCHESTER - Throughout the spring season, Sherando High School's baseball team regularly pushed Millbrook to the brink, only to fall short of knocking off the Pioneers.
Four times, the Warriors met the Pioneers. Four times, they lost - three of those defeats by one run.
On Friday in the Group 4A North Region championship game, Sherando got a rare fifth shot at knocking off their county rivals. But just like their previous four efforts, the Warriors ultimately came up short in a 6-5 defeat.
Millbrook squandered a four-run lead and another one-run advantage before finally turning back Sherando with a seventh-inning rally sparked by Conor Hartigan's leadoff double to left field off Warriors reliever Reid Entsminger. Sherando elected to intentionally walk Matt Hendershot, and Entsminger got a big out on Michael Tinsman's groundout to shortstop that failed to advance the runners.
Entsminger, admittedly "rusty" from not pitching much this season due to injuries, then walked pinch hitter Kyle Keenan to load the bases for Alex Amos. On a 2-0 pitch, Amos slashed a fly ball to right field that was deep enough for Hartigan to tag up from third and score the winning run for the walk-off victory.
"It stings to lose by one run - again - in the regional championship, but hopefully we'll see them again in the state championship game and win when it counts," Entsminger said.
Entsminger got the Warriors rolling after a slow start against Millbrook right-handed starting pitcher Trey Braithwaite, who set down the first nine Warriors in a row before hitting Adam Whitacre with a pitch to lead off the top of the fourth. Two outs later, Entsminger unloaded on a fastball from Braithwaite and deposited a two-run home run over the left-field fence to cut the Pioneers' lead to 4-2.
Before that, it had been all Millbrook. Conor Hartigan's two-run single put the Pioneers up in the bottom of the first, and Bruce Keenan tagged on an RBI single and Trenton Burgreen had a sacrifice fly RBI in the second off Sherando starter Ty Michaud.
"He just gave me a fastball down the middle, and that's where most of the home runs have come this postseason," Entsminger said. "I just go with it, and that's what I look for in my at-bat."
Entsminger's homer seemed to energize the dormant Sherando offense, even after Millbrook got one of those runs back in the bottom of the fourth on Jacob Jaye's sacrifice fly RBI.
Sherando's Zach Henke started a two-out rally with a single to center field and advanced to second on an error, and Chase Smallwood followed by reaching on another error that scored Henke. The Pioneers elected to intentionally walk Entsminger, but Braithwaite was done after walking Hayden Fox to load the bases. Connor Stevenson greeted Pioneers reliever Colin Benner with a two-run single to center to tie the game.
"I'm extremely proud of this baseball team and the way they compete," Sherando coach Pepper Martin said. "We've played Millbrook five times now, and lost four times by one run, twice in walk-off fashion. We got behind, but we battled back and we showed a lot of grit and determination to do that."
Entsminger escaped a jam in the bottom of the sixth by stranding a pair of runners, and the Warriors threatened in the top of the seventh. Andrew Loudan led off with a double, and Martin's decision not to bunt with No. 9 hitter Marcus Painter was a move he was second-guessing afterward. Benner struck out Painter and got Adam Whitacre to hit a shallow fly ball to center that didn't move the runner up. Henke then drew a walk to bring up Smallwood, the Warriors' standout catcher who's signed to play at Shepherd University next season. Benner won the battle, striking out Smallwood on three pitches to escape the jam.
"We don't expect anything different when these two ballclubs get together," Millbrook coach Brian Burke said. "No lead is safe, no team can get complacent with the lead. These teams know each other so well. We've competed hard through the years, no matter what the other team's record might be. We're just fortunate - we've been in tight situations throughout this season and we've been able to find ways to win. We might be young on paper, but we've been in these situations before."
Sherando will face Hanover next Friday in the Group 4A state semifinals at Liberty University in Lynchburg. Game time is 3 p.m.. Smallwood and his teammates would love one more shot at the Pioneers, but it would have to come in the state championship game.
"That's just Millbrook-Sherando baseball, right there," Smallwood said. "That's how it's supposed be played, that's the big thrill about this rivalry. Throughout the years, it's always been like this."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>