Streaking Eagles cool off Wildcats

BERRYVILLE — Clarke County relief pitcher Will Roper said that if there is one thing the Eagles baseball staff preaches, it’s hustle.

Roper should know. He made a key defensive play in the visitors’ sixth inning Wednesday night to help give Clarke a 6-4 Bull Run District victory over Warren County at Singhas Field.

The triumph for Clarke County was its fourth straight and enabled the Eagles to increase their record to 6-4-1 in the league, 7-6-1 overall. Meanwhile, the two-run loss was Warren’s (8-5 district/overall) first in five games.

“The pitcher made a great play on the ball, but even if he does not make it, our base runners are kind of stuck because they don’t know whether he’s going to get it or not. Turns out he did and he doubled us to end a big inning,” said Warren County coach Vernon Mathews.

Roper, a pitcher-outfielder, had come on in relief of young starting hurler Colt Webb (1-1) in the top of the fifth inning with his team ahead 5-3. Clarke County coach Jon Novick had replaced Webb after the starter walked Warren’s Eric Baker (2-for-3 with a double, a run batted in and a run scored).

Webb had allowed three earned runs with four strikeouts, four bases on balls, six hits and two hit batsmen. Roper allowed Baker to score — a run charged to the starter — and so when the climactic sixth came around it was a 5-4 ballgame in favor of Clarke County.

After Warren’s Rhett Tierney sent a base hit over the shortstop’s head, Cameron Ford (2-for-3) bunted Tierney to second. Lead-off hitter Joseph Rutherford popped up a shallow bunt. Roper dove for it just in front of the plate, and, having made the grab, Roper fired to Clarke first baseman Michael Fields, catching the Warren County runner off base for the double play.

“Will is athletic on the mound and he made a heckuva play,” Novick said. “We feed off that effort and, truthfully, I think it turned the game around.”

Roper would go on to finish 2 1/3 innings, striking out one and allowing four hits. He made two wild pitches and hit a batter.

“I saw the ball go up (just in front of Clarke catcher Kaden Warren) and it took everything I could do to make a play on the ball,” Roper said. “I hesitated for a second, but fired the ball [to Fields] for the double play. Our coaches preach, ‘No matter what, make the hustle play.”

The way the game started, it appeared that only Warren County players would be centers of attention as the two teams met for the second time (the Wildcats won 6-5 on March 27 at home) this season.

They scored two runs to open the game on three hits and an error. Defensive lapses had been one thing that had concerned Clarke’s Novick, but in this game, the Eagles limited their miscues to two and made three put-outs in the field, nailing Wildcats’ base runners.

Baker’s double to left was the big hit of the inning.

“This was our third game in three days (Clarke was scheduled for a fourth on Thursday) and I thought we were a little flat at first,” Novick said. “We took a shot from them and then were able to counter.”

Did they ever.

Warren County scored a run in the third off a bases-loaded hit batsman, but Clarke’s Michael Zuleger, who was called up from the junior varsity team just after spring break, delivered a grand slam that traveled up to 340 feet from home plate over the right-center fence. The youngster’s first varsity homer scored four runs, but the Eagles batted around, putting up a five-spot in the bottom of the third.

“It was a fastball down the middle. I had no idea it was going out. I thought it was a double,” Zuleger said.

Mathews pulled starter John Reith prior to the last hitter in the Clarke third and replaced him with relief specialist Stephen Johnson, who worked 2 1/3 innings, allowing four hits, striking out one, permitting a sixth run and recording one wild pitch.

Johnson put the Eagles down 1-2-3 in bottom of the fourth, and then Warren made it a one-run game in the fifth.

It was Baker who drew a walk to start off the visitors’ half of the inning. He stole second base and then moved to third on an error. Hunter Wines (2-for-4, two runs scored) singled home Baker for a 5-4 score. Warren might have reaped more, but the Clarke County left fielder threw out Wine’s pinch-runner at the plate.

In the bottom of the fifth, it was time for some Warren County heroics. Clarke’s Warren singled to start the inning off and moved to second on a wild pitch. After catcher Robert Rutherford had thrown out Webb on a bunt attempt, the backstop fielded a throw from first baseman Wines to nab Clarke’s Warren at the plate. Actually it was Rutherford’s brother, Joseph, playing center field, who started the double play off. He caught a fly ball and relayed it to Wines, who fired home for the play.

Still, Clarke County netted one more run in the bottom of the sixth for insurance.

Warren County didn’t back down in the top of the seventh.

The Wildcats had runners on second and third when Clarke County closer Cody Santmyer got a Warren County pinch hitter to pop up to end the game.

“We didn’t play our best,” Mathews said. “We threw two pitchers, they threw three. We put three runners on base (in the Clarke third) with walks and they got the grand-slam. You can’t win baseball games like that.”