By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- Jake Harper felt a little off before he stepped on the mound for the Front Royal Cardinals in Thursday's Valley League game against visiting Staunton at Bing Crosby Stadium.
He hadn't slept well the night before, and the customary pre-game meal at Cracker Barrel that Harper generally enjoys before each start he makes simply didn't sit well with the 6-foot, 5-inch left-hander in the hours leading up to Thursday's game.
But as soon as Harper toed the rubber against the Braves, he was on.
Utilizing a blistering tempo, which Harper said helps keep opposing batters off-balance, and intent on hammering the strike zone, Harper tossed eight-plus innings for the Cardinals while allowing just three hits in Front Royal's 3-2 win over Staunton.
"Honestly I felt like crap all day. I slept awful last night and I came in just trying to pound the zone and let my defense work behind me," said Harper, a rising senior from Saint Joseph's College in Indiana. "I got in a groove there, my curveball was working. ... Felt good. Everything was smooth and it felt easy today."
Harper breezed through the first eight innings on Thursday, as he allowed just one run on two hits before exiting with no outs and two runners on in the ninth inning. With the Cardinals (23-12) leading 3-1 in the top of the ninth, Harper surrendered a leadoff single to Staunton's Joey Rodriguez (2-for-3, RBI) and hit Richie Ricciardi for the second time in the game before being pulled in favor of right-handed reliever Kevin Becker-Menditto.
Becker-Menditto induced a groundout by Gunnar McNeill -- the VBL's leader in batting average and RBIs -- that moved both runners up a base, and J.C. Escarra's RBI groundout to second cut Front Royal's lead to 3-2 with two outs.
Becker-Menditto, a submarine pitcher, dealt a walk to Hunter Thomas before inducing his third groundout of the inning off the bat of Elliott McCummings to record his seventh save of the summer.
"I just left a pitch over the middle and got the ground ball through the middle. I cut the curveball off, hit the kid again. Becker comes in and does what he does best," said Harper, who improved to 5-0 this season with the win. "That's the second time he's bailed me out with guys on first and second and no outs this summer. He did his job and I'm thankful for that."
Harper was astonishingly efficient during his outing, as he threw just 87 pitches, 65 for strikes in his eight-plus innings. He didn't throw more than 11 pitches in any inning.
Harper also didn't walk a batter, although he hit three, and struck out eight, tying his season high. Both of his runs allowed were earned.
"He's been pretty consistent the entire summer," Cardinals manager Brad Neffendorf said. "... He did a great job, flooded the zone. A couple of hit-by-pitches, but he did a great job. We had to kind of ride him."
Front Royal took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second on Spencer Wolfe's RBI single to left field off Staunton starting pitcher Cody Beck and added two more runs in the third on Hunter Newman's two-run home run.
Cardinals right fielder Shell McCain walked on four pitches with one out in the third and Newman followed two batters later by planting a 1-1 offering from Beck over the fence in left field for his sixth homer of the season to give Front Royal a 3-0 lead.
Beck, who was making his first since June 15 and his second against Front Royal this summer, settled in after that. The left-hander allowed three earned runs on six hits and three walks while striking out seven before exiting the game with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning.
"He threw against us at their place, too ... and it was kind of the same thing. I think we scored three in the first down there and then he got into a groove," Newman said. "I don't know. Maybe once he sees every one once, he's just more effective the second time around which is weird because usually it's the opposite."
Harper carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning before Braves third baseman Connor Short doubled to lead off the top of the sixth. A sacrifice bunt by Ryan Johnston moved Short to third and Rodriguez brought him home with an RBI single to left.
"Their starting pitcher did a great job tonight," Braves coach George Laase said. "You've just got to tip your cap because he got ahead early. We had to swing at his pitches and they played some good defense behind. Offensively we never take ourselves out of the picture. We're a swinging team. ... We really attack, it doesn't matter if it's the first inning or the ninth inning. But Front Royal is a good team. They're the best for a reason."