River Bandits, Royals split doubleheader

WOODSTOCK – In the midst of a late-season surge, the Woodstock River Bandits missed out on a chance to vault themselves into fourth place in the Valley Baseball League’s North Division Tuesday night.

After winning the first game of a doubleheader with visiting Winchester, 3-1, the River Bandits fell to the Royals 7-2 in the nightcap. The win dropped Woodstock back into fifth place – one spot shy of a playoff berth with four games remaining – and one game behind the fourth-place Royals.

“We came out in the first game and executed well,” River Bandits manager Phil Betterly said. “We hit the ball, got good pitching. When the game of baseball asked for us to execute, we did. In the second game, tip your cap to Winchester. They did a good job of taking advantage of opportunities. They executed better than us. But I was proud of our effort both games.”

The River Bandits (17-21), winners of six of their last eight ballgames, struggled to deliver the key hit against Winchester in the nightcap. Woodstock left seven runners on base in the seven-inning game – all in the first five innings – including six in scoring position.

“We’ve been executing all year mostly, especially in the last couple weeks, in those situations and you would like to come through 100 percent of the time but you’re not always,” Betterly said. “It was something we did well the first game and just didn’t happen for us this time. But I like our approach. Our guys are really growing with their approach at the plate.”

Winchester struck first in the second game, as Zach Carter led off the second inning with a single off Woodstock starting pitcher Ryan Bennett and later scored on a groundout by Cullen Vaught.

Woodstock answered in the third inning when it got three straight one-out hits, including an RBI double to left-center off the bat of Collin Nyenhuis – the VBL’s second leading run producer – that scored Andrew Selby. Nyenhuis and Esteban Puerta each finished with two hits and a double for the River Bandits in the loss.

Winchester came back with a pair of runs in the fifth inning to reclaim the lead for good. A leadoff single by Vaught and a poor throwing decision by Bennett on a sacrifice bunt attempt put two Royals on to open the frame, and Sean Visconti chased Bennett from the game with an RBI single. Luke Gibbs stole home on a delayed attempt to give the Royals a 3-1 lead.

Bennett, who entered the game with a 1.98 ERA, lasted only 4 1/3 innings and allowed three runs (two earned) on five hits, no walks and a strikeout while getting tagged for his fourth loss this season.

“I thought he competed,” Betterly said. “He’s been a workhorse for us all year and he’s going to keep making good starts for us, hopefully another one in the playoffs.”

Woodstock cut the Royals’ lead to one in the bottom of the fifth as Matthew Koehler’s RBI groundout scored Puerta, but River Bandits reliever Brady Jones surrendered a run right back to Winchester in the sixth to put Woodstock in a 4-2 hole.

Austin Smith picked up his second win for Winchester after he went 4 2/3 innings and allowed two earned runs on six hits, three walks and seven strikeouts.

The Royals blew the game open with three runs in the top of the seventh inning. One run scored on a River Bandits error on Carter’s chopper to third with the bases loaded, and Alex Mata padded the lead with a two-run double on a grounder down the first-base line.

Woodstock, which has resided at the bottom of the North Division for most of the Valley League season, suddenly finds itself right in the thick of the playoff race. The River Bandits are one game out of a playoff spot – and three games out of first place – with four games remaining.

“Guys are playing with a lot of confidence,” Betterly said. “Playing loose, playing with confidence. Seeing a lot of guys starting to develop, especially on the mental side of the game. They’re learning how to come to compete every game.”

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