King quickly shakes off rust for Wildcats

Austin King

FRONT ROYAL – The rust came off pretty quickly for Austin King.

With his left foot fresh out of a walking boot last week after being sidelined the first half of the season with a bone bruise just above his heel, the Warren County High School senior took the field for his first baseball game with the Wildcats in 2015. King, a three-year varsity starter for coach Vernon Mathews’ squad, went hitless against Central in his first game back from the injury on April 21, but by the end of last Wednesday’s home game against John Champe, King hardly looked like a player who had spent virtually every baseball practice for the past month sitting in a chair throwing a baseball against a wall.

In that game against the Knights – just two days after his walking boot was removed – King went 3-for-4 at the plate with a grand slam, a double and seven RBIs as Warren County rolled to a 14-3 win.

“I just wanted to hit the ball,” said King, the Northern Virginia Daily’s Male Athlete of the Week for April 19-25, on Monday. “Against Central I didn’t really hit anything that well. That game [last Wednesday] I was just focused on hitting the ball and hitting it hard.”

King’s return to the diamond last week brought with it plenty of excitement and likely some relief for the senior, who initially feared the injury could impact his future college baseball career at Division III Lynchburg College. That excitement in his return only intensified for King with his offensive outburst last Wednesday, especially when it ended with his first varsity home run, a walk-off grand slam that ended the game in five innings due to the mercy rule.

“It was great because that ended the game because of it was slaughter rule. It just ended and then everybody was waiting at the plate. It was awesome,” King said.

But King didn’t stop there. The senior, who bats left-handed and throws right-handed, ended his first week back on the diamond with a 1-for-3 effort in a 4-1 win over visiting Manassas Park last Friday that included a double and another RBI.

King, playing primarily as a designated hitter, finished his first week going 4-for-14 (.300) with a home run, two doubles and eight RBIs. In a full season of action last year, King had five doubles and 14 RBIs while batting cleanup for the Wildcats.

“The kids were excited because we honestly didn’t know if he was coming back at all,” Mathews said. “And as a coaching staff we planned on him not coming back because we had to be ready. I told the kids, you can’t just wait for Austin to come back, we have to figure out how we’re going to win and what we need to do without him, and if he comes back then that’s a bonus. But when he came back, I mean he’s three years on varsity, a key part of our team, a great teammate, great kid. Everybody’s happy for him, that he’s back, and I think he gave us a boost.”

King, who also plays basketball for Warren County in the winter, said he first began experiencing discomfort in his left foot last summer. He played through it during basketball season with help from pain relievers, he said, but when the pain started keeping him awake at night he chose to have it examined.

He visited a doctor the same day the Wildcats were scheduled to play their first baseball game of the season and he left there on crutches with a walking boot on his foot. King spent the next month sidelined from all baseball-related activities.

“It was terrible,” said King, who was diagnosed with a mild case of Achilles tendinitis in addition to the bone bruise. “Just having to sit there and watch, and watch some close games that could’ve been different, maybe. I just had to sit there and watch them all.”

Since returning to action, King also pitched two innings last Friday and gave up a run while striking out two. Mathews said King struggled with his balance point on the mound and threw across his body on several occasions, and the senior said though he’s experiencing no pain on the field, he has noticed some weakness due to muscle atrophy in his calf.

“It’s just demoralizing to look down and it’s just a little skinnier,” King said. “I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s just weaker. Just doing things the first day back, my leg was sore. It was just tired. It hasn’t done anything in so long.”

In addition to King’s value as a run producer in the heart of Warren County’s lineup, Mathews also hopes the senior can reprise his role as a top three starting pitcher in the Wildcats’ rotation. King was scheduled to start on the mound (with an 80-pitch limit) on Tuesday at Rappahannock County before moving to play first base. Mathews also said he planned to use King as a designated hitter against Clarke County on Wednesday to give him some rest, and Warren County’s coaching staff will take a wait-and-see approach for Thursday’s game against Madison County before determining whether to play King at first base or keep him at DH.

“I just want to do all I can to help the team win and be successful,” King said.

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com