River Bandits clinch spot in playoffs

WINCHESTER – Woodstock’s late-season push for a spot in the Valley Baseball League playoffs came to a dramatic and fortunate end for the River Bandits in Monday night’s play-in game against Winchester at Bridgeforth Field.

The River Bandits lost a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning but RBI singles by Erven Roper and Joey Aiola vaulted Woodstock to a 5-3 win that secured the fourth and final postseason spot in the North Division.

Woodstock, which will play at top-seeded Front Royal in the opening round of the playoffs in a best-of-three series, has won three straight and 12 of its last 17 games.

“I know it means a whole lot to these guys,” Roper said. “They played their tails off, made some spectacular plays today. And I know it means even more to the fans. This is my second year coming back and it means a lot. Last year we were probably last in the league so it’s awesome to be able to go to the playoffs for the first time.”

The River Bandits (21-22), who missed the playoffs last summer after winning the North Division in 2013, carried a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning before Winchester (20-23) knotted up the score on Luke Gibbs’ RBI single up the middle.

Woodstock’s defense turned its third double play of the night to escape further damage in the ninth and came right back with the decisive runs in the first extra frame.

Collin Nyenhuis and Justin Woods started the 10th inning rally by working back-to-back walks against Royals reliever John Barr with one out, and Roper immediately made the right-hander pay with an RBI single on a grounder up the middle.

“I was just trying to put the bat on the ball,” Roper said. “… Just trying to get a pitch to drive, so I got one and did the job.”

Aiola gave the River Bandits a two-run cushion when he lined an RBI single to center field.

Woodstock reliever Hunter Morgan, who surrendered the tying run in the ninth, retired the Royals in order in the bottom of the tenth to lock up the victory.

The River Bandits, who split six regular-season meetings with Winchester, jumped out early against Royals starting pitcher Drew Crosby.

Roper and Will Thompson led off the second inning with a single and double, respectively, although it appeared Woodstock would squander an early chance for runs when Roper was thrown out at the plate on a fielder’s choice and Matt Polak struck out with the bases loaded for the inning’s second out. But leadoff man Andrew Selby delivered a clutch two-run single on a line drive to center to give the Bandits an early 2-0 lead.

“We’ve just been hot,” said Selby, who had three of Woodstock’s 10 hits. “Hot at the right time, total team effort. Guys are getting on and we’re pushing them around.”

Aside from a costly two-out error in the fourth inning that led to a two-run homer by Winchester’s Hayden Platt that briefly tied the game at 2-2, the River Bandits also enjoyed spectacular defense on Monday night. In addition to the three double plays, Nyenhuis and Woods made diving stops in the infield in the fourth inning, John Wilt made a diving catch in left field on a sinking liner in the sixth and Nyenhuis and reliever Christian Dufresne teamed up on a high chopper to make a great play to nail a runner at first base in the eighth.

“We’ve got a good defense, that’s for sure,” Selby said. “We’ve definitely won games with our defense down the stretch and that’s what’s been holding up. Pitching and defense, that’s what wins championships and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Woodstock answered Platt’s fourth-inning homer with a run in the top of the fifth. Selby led off with a double to right field off Royals reliever and Sherando High School graduate John Bentley, and Nyenhuis drove in Selby with a double of his own one out later.

Bentley, who came on in relief of Crosby with two outs in the second inning, threw 5.2 innings and allowed one earned run on three hits, one walk and three strikeouts.

Ryan Bennett got the start for Woodstock and allowed two unearned runs on five hits in four innings of work. Dufresne tossed 3.2 scoreless innings in relief for the River Bandits.

“I’m happy for our players and the organization,” Woodstock manager Phil Betterly said. “You just can’t say enough about our group, how they just came to work every day to try and get better. They gave a strong effort and that led to us being able to get wins. We’re happy to be in, and I’m just kind of speechless right now. We’re excited and we’re just going to keep taking it one day at a time.”

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