By Jeff Nations
WINCHESTER - The Valley Baseball League regular season is rapidly drawing to a close with fully six teams jockeying for the final three playoff spots.
Winchester Royals manager Stu Richardson has one of those clubs, which means that playoff-type feeling has already started for his team. The Royals got a feel-good boost on Wednesday against visiting Woodstock at Bridgeforth Field, rallying back from a two-run deficit for a 7-4 win over the River Bandits.
Heading into the game, Richardson's club was tied with the River Bandits for ninth place in the VBL standings.
"If you go on a little run, then you've got a shot at getting in," Richardson said. "If you have a few games where you lose two or three in a row, it might be history for you."
Winchester (13-20) bounced back from an early 3-1 with a four-run fifth inning sparked by a go-for-broke approach on the basepaths. Cory Chafin led off with a single against Woodstock starting pitcher Greg Ostner, then took second on a wild pitch. Brandon Canizares tried to sacrifice, but instead reached on a fielder's choice when Ostner failed to catch Chafin at third. Wes Hoover then brought in a run on a safety squeeze to put the Royals up 4-3.
Lucas Luopa and Jerry Downs followed with singles, and Luopa came home on a strange play when a dropped third strike to Alex Mata forced River Bandits catcher Erven Roper to throw to first.
"The pitch was a good pitch in the dirt and Luopa read it real well," Richardson said. "He was halfway down the line and as soon as he saw the guy throw he just broke. That's just aggressive baserunning."
Michael Sillyman capped the four-run outburst with another RBI single.
The Royals grabbed a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second on Zac Carter's RBI infield single.
Woodstock chased Winchester starter Tyler Gibson in the third inning. Alex Lewis led off with a single and Will Malbon followed with another. Andrew Brodbeck dropped down a sacrifice bunt that Royals third baseman Brandon Canizares threw away for an error to load the bases with no outs.
Esteban Puerta drove in a run for the River Bandits with a high chopper through the right side for a single, Kevin White followed with an RBI on a fielder's choice and Zach Jarrett drove in another run with a single. Gibson walked Brett Lashley to load the bases, prompting his early exit. Winchester's Nate Traugh escaped further damage by striking out Roper with the bases loaded.
Sillyman got one of those runs back in the bottom of the fourth with a solo home run off Ostner.
Winchester's Michael Carpenter came on to pitch in the fourth and proceeded to mow down the River Bandits for the next four innings. He struck out nine while allowing just one hit to pick up the win.
"My change-up was working and I could really get the ball inside on these kids," said Carpenter, a right-hander from VCU. "Nobody in college baseball is hitting the ball inside because all the college coaches teach hitting the ball to opposite fields. So I went ahead and took advantage of that on the inner half tonight and them made them uncomfortable and swing at change-ups."
Woodstock (10-21) threatened in the top of the ninth, scoring once and loading the bases against reliever Connor Staskey. Charles Cantrell came on and earned the save with one pitch when he got Jarrett to line out.
River Bandits manager Phil Betterly remains confident his squad will battle its way into the playoffs, which are slated to begin on July 29. Only the top eight teams in the regular-season standings advance to the postseason.
"It's an old cliché, but you just have to come to the ballpark every day with the same mindset," Betterly said. "You want to go out and win a ballgame and do whatever it takes, and that's what we're doing right now and that's why I'm confident we're going to make that stride and get into the playoffs."