By Tommy Keeler Jr.
Winchester Post 21 and Front Royal Post 53 enter this weekend in different positions as they prepare for the upcoming American Legion District 16 baseball tournament.
Winchester finished its district season last week and has been able to rest and get ready for the tournament, which starts Sunday. Front Royal was scheduled to play back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday nights with a top seed on the line.
Winchester (15-3) has first place clinched, but Front Royal (9-7) entered Friday's game with a chance to finish anywhere from third to fifth. The top four teams host first-round games on Sunday in the double-elimination tournament.
The rest of the tournament will be played at Bing Crosby Field starting on Tuesday.
Front Royal manager Rick Almarode said that he feels pretty good about his team, despite having to play three games in three days.
"Due to the weather and the backlog of games, there were some teams that had to play all week and some teams had to play doubleheaders. So, I feel good about only having to play three games," Almarode said. "We played Monday, but then we've had off a few days. So everybody's rested and ready to go."
Winchester played two non-district games this week to get ready for the tournament.
Winchester manager Steve Smallwood said the key for the team all season has been pitching.
"Right now our strong point is pitching," Smallwood said. "That's really kept us in it. Our pitching's really held us together."
Sherando graduate Taylor Loudan, who now plays at Christopher Newport University, has been the workhorse on the mound for Winchester. Loudan has pitched 38 innings, has a 1.42 ERA and 40 strikeouts. Loudan is 5-1 on the season.
John Bentley, who plays at Shepherd University and is also a Sherando graduate, has pitched 23 innings and is 2-1 with two saves. He has 18 strikeouts and a 1.96 ERA.
Millbrook's Colin Benner has pitched 25 innings and is 3-2 with a 2.52 ERA. Sherando graduate Chase Smallwood is 2-0 with a 2.05 ERA and has pitched 22 innings and has 18 strikeouts. Winchester has a team ERA of 2.39.
"We're very, very deep," Steve Smallwood said. "Most teams have two, three guys that can start and then some other guys are spot guys. We have five, six guys that can start and three, four other guys who can give us some innings."
Steve Smallwood said their hitting has struggled at times, but they've been hitting the ball well lately. Winchester is hitting .321 as a team.
Sherando graduate Jacob Carney, who currently plays at Shepherd University, is hitting .492 (31-for-63) with 25 runs scored, 10 doubles and nine RBIs. Chase Smallwood is batting .410 (25-for-61) with 18 runs scored, eight doubles and a team-best 20 RBIs.
"Carney and Chase [Smallwood] have been on fire," Steve Smallwood said. "We're pretty tough one through nine. The top seven [in the lineup] I would put up against anybody out there. We can mix and match at the bottom of our lineup."
Front Royal has been led offensively by R-MA graduate Neil Dutton, who currently plays at Shenandoah University. He is batting .486 (17-for-35) with 13 runs scored, one home run and a team-leading 14 RBIs. Skyline's Robert Presley is batting .364 (16-for-44) with 18 runs scored and 12 RBis. Central's Cody Sager is batting .367 (11-for-30) with seven runs scored and seven RBIs.
Almarode said Dutton has been very important to the success of the team.
"I don't know what I'd do without Neil," Almarode said. "He's a good kid. He's been the leader of our team. He's been a great leader for us."
Warren County's John Reith has led the pitching staff for Front Royal. Reith has a 1.42 ERA in 12.2 innings of work. He has 15 strikeouts and is 0-0 on the season with two saves. Skyline graduate Sterling Jennings has pitched 17.2 innings with a 3.06 ERA and 15 strikeouts and a 2-0 record. Warren County's Austin King has a 1.38 ERA in 13 innings of work with 11 strikeouts and a 1-1 record.
Almarode said Reith was moved to the closer role after he struggled a little bit, but he's still listed as a starter and could certainly start during the tournament.
Front Royal has a very young team, but has been playing better lately and Almarode said he's hopeful they will continue to play a well in the tournament.
Having the tournament at home should also benefit Front Royal.
"It's been at Stafford for the last seven or eight years, and when I took over the job this year I told Danny Wood I wanted to hold the tournament here this year," Almarode said. "The traveling gets old when you have to leave at 9 a.m. for a morning game. We've been playing well and hopefully we can keep it up and put on a good show for everybody in the town of Front Royal."
Steve Smallwood said a big key for his team is for them to stay focused, something he said they've struggled with at times this season.
"I don't think the guys realize how good they really are," Smallwood said. "Sometimes they take a play off here or there. I told them [earlier this week] they've got to play well the last two games [of the regular season] and then focus on that district tournament, and your state tournament. Overall, they've played well. I think we'll be all right."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd