Joseph Rutherford back as Wildcats’ ace in 2016

Warren County's  Joseph Rutherford returns to lead the Wildcats' pitching staff in his senior season.    Rich Cooley/Daily file

Warren County's Joseph Rutherford returns to lead the Wildcats' pitching staff in his senior season. Rich Cooley/Daily file

FRONT ROYAL – The laws of progression suggested Joseph Rutherford was already due to see more time on the mound for Warren County’s baseball team as a junior last season. Then a door to a more prominent pitching role opened.

The day of the Wildcats’ first game of the 2015 season, then-senior Austin King visited the doctor and left in a walking boot. King, one of Warren County’s top arms, would miss the first half of the season.

“I think Austin getting hurt, we kind of needed a lot more people to step up and I think I probably got a lot more innings because of that,” Rutherford said before practice Tuesday afternoon as the Wildcats prepped for the upcoming season.

“I knew he had a big role and someone was gonna have to fill in some.”

So Rutherford did.

In 46.2 innings pitched last spring – up from the 19.2 innings he tossed as a sophomore in 2014 – Rutherford went 6-2 with a sparkling 1.05 earned run average, second only to King’s area-leading 1.04 ERA, and he was third in the area with 54 strikeouts.

Rutherford, who also batted .383 (31 for 81) from the leadoff spot and was top five in the area in runs scored (27), stolen bases (13) and triples (3), earned all-Conference 28 and all-Bull Run District honors at season’s end as both a pitcher and an outfielder.

Warren County first-year coach Mike Minch will certainly be looking for a strong encore performance from Rutherford after declaring the senior “100 percent” the Wildcats’ ace in 2016.

“When Joe’s strike one, strike two, he’s gonna be tough to beat,” said Minch, who served as an assistant to former Wildcats head baseball coach Vernon Mathews last season.

“I would definitely say he’s our ace of the staff and we’re definitely gonna give him the ball every chance we get.”

That’s a role Rutherford’s eager to fill this season – he’s too experienced as a three-sport athlete to feel any qualms about being labeled as the Wildcats’ top arm, he said.

A pitcher since Little League, Rutherford credited his defense and the pitch calling of Mathews for a lot of his success last year. He added that some of his effectiveness could be attributed to his handedness.

“It helps being a lefty,” Rutherford said. “And I’ve kind of always been a curveball pitcher. I’ve always kind of had that.”

Rutherford complements that curveball with a fastball and a changeup, but he considers the curve to be his best pitch. Rutherford’s battery mate and twin brother, Robert, said it’s Joseph’s ability to locate all three of his pitches that makes him so successful on the mound.

“He does a great job of getting ahead in counts, and getting a first-pitch curveball in the zone because not many batters are gonna swing at a first-pitch curveball,” Robert Rutherford, the Wildcats’ starting catcher, said. “He really controls well and gets ahead in counts and doesn’t really give hitters much to hit.”

Robert Rutherford has had a front-row seat for most of his brother’s outings on the mound over the years. Aside from a stint around age 6 when Joseph Rutherford stuck with baseball while his twin tried soccer, the two said they’ve always been on the same team.

At Warren County High School, both Rutherfords have played football (Robert Rutherford was the Wildcats’ quarterback while his brother was the running back), basketball and baseball together.

That closeness has formed a bond on the baseball diamond that doesn’t exist among a lot of other pitchers and catchers, they said.

“I think being twins it’s easy to critique each other,” Joseph Rutherford said. “We’re not afraid to hurt each other’s feelings.”

“He lets me know when I do something he doesn’t like,” Robert Rutherford interjected before his brother could finish his sentence.

“We’ve just always, I guess, known to rely on each other and been there for each other.”

The Rutherford twins, who have helped push a bigger emphasis on offseason workouts to their baseball teammates, will be part of a key core of seven seniors for the Wildcats in Minch’s first season at the helm, a group Minch said has bought into the culture the coaching staff has been implementing.

“Hopefully these younger guys see that, see what kind of kids Joe and Robert are, not just on the field but also off the field,” Minch said. “That’s the thing we’re trying to really push here as a coaching staff is you take care of things in the classroom, the community. If you do that good things will happen on the field, for sure.”

Minch said he expects pitching to be Warren County’s strength this season, and the Wildcats’ entire infield from last year’s team returns, including seniors Stephen Johnson (third base) and Rhett Tierney (second base), junior shortstop Cam Ford and sophomore first baseman Hunter Wines. Joseph Rutherford will patrol center field when not on the mound while the corner outfield spots are an open competition in preseason practice, Minch said.

The Wildcats finished 16-9 last spring, an improvement over their 8-13 campaign in 2014. Warren County’s 2015 season come to an end with a 3-2 loss to John Champe in the Conference 28 tournament semifinals.

“Now they understand what it takes be successful, to reach that pinnacle and to get back there,” Minch said. “That’s one of our goals is to win the conference championship, as it is with any other team. But we had a little taste of it, being successful, and we’ve reached a new era for Warren County baseball. We’re definitely gonna build upon that and look to get back there and continue to make strides.”

The Wildcats open the 2016 season at James Wood on March 15.

Joseph and Robert Rutherford said Warren County’s aspirations this season stretch beyond a championship in the new-look Conference 28.

“This is pretty much it for us,” Joseph Rutherford said. “We just wanna see how much noise we can make.”

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

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