2016 Baseball Player of the Year: Rutherford did a bit of everything in final season with Wildcats

Warren County's Joseph Rutherford, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2016 Baseball Player of the Year, led the area in strikeouts (68) and batting average (.467) this season. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Joseph Rutherford said he could feel it in the bullpen as he was warming up for Warren County High School’s baseball game on April 8. Something was just off.

Rutherford, making his third start of the 2016 season, his final spring with the Wildcats, stepped to rubber to open the first inning of that early season matchup with Bull Run District rival Strasburg. The Warren County ace went on to record just one out in that game, as uncharacteristic wildness on Rutherford’s part led to five walks, a hit batter and six earned runs.

Rutherford recalled that his twin brother and catcher, Robert, would later joke that the left-hander had forgotten how to throw a baseball that day.

“That definitely motivated me,” Rutherford said last week of a game that eventually spiraled into a 23-3 Strasburg win. “That was an awful feeling, just going up there and just not having it. I knew I only had so many starts left and I had to make the most of them. After giving up six earned runs or whatever it was, I bounced back. I threw a good game against Central, a pretty good game against Skyline in the playoffs. I just definitely wanted to get back. It feels good to throw strikes after that.”

Rutherford’s rebound was swift. Four days later after that loss, he was back on the mound against Madison County and tossed six innings while allowing one earned run and striking out 13. That outing would set the tone for the remainder of the spring.

Rutherford, The Northern Virginia Daily’s 2016 Baseball Player of the Year, allowed just five earned runs over his final six starts of the season. He would finish his senior season with a 5-3 record, a 1.92 earned run average and an area-high 68 strikeouts over 51 innings pitched in nine starts.

“When we needed a win I definitely wanted to give him the ball,” Wildcats first-year head coach Michael Minch said. “We definitely felt like he was our best chance to win.

“After that loss (against Strasburg) we could’ve went in an opposite direction and we didn’t. Joe, as a leader, definitely took control and it showed that next start.”

Rutherford attributed his success on the mound to a couple of factors. He credited the pitch calling of Wildcats assistant coach John Nicholson, and said he’s got an unrivaled comfort level with Robert, who excelled at framing pitches, keeping balls in front of him and knowing when his brother needed a chat on the mound. And there was the curveball.

Rutherford wasn’t always firing with a full arsenal – he said command of his changeup fluctuated from game to game -but the left-hander was still able to thrive with a curveball that became a very tough pitch to hit when he was able to backdoor it against right-handed hitters.

Opposing batters hit just .141 against Rutherford this season.

“I think my curveball definitely got a little bit better,” Rutherford said. “It was kind of my big pitch last year but I improved on that. A couple games my changeup was working well and being able to work in that third pitch was definitely helping my stuff.”

As Warren County’s leadoff hitter, Rutherford was even more consistent. He led all local public high school players with a .476 batting average (28-for-60) and scored 28 runs while stealing 15 bases.

His batting average jumped 84 points from his junior season last year, an increase Rutherford said was powered by a sharper mental approach that he honed last summer while playing American Legion baseball for Front Royal Post 53.

“I think for me this year it was definitely letting the ball travel and seeing curveballs the other way,” said Rutherford, a varsity player since being called up midway through his freshman year. “Most high school pitchers focus on the outside part of the plate, so I focused on hitting to the opposite field a lot. I was able to hit line drives over the shortstop’s head, groundballs between third and short, or even a groundball to shortstop that maybe was a little slow, I would be able to use my speed and get on base with that too.”

Rutherford said that with his role as the Wildcats’ leadoff man – a position he held last season, as well – came the pressure of being responsible for jumpstarting Warren County’s offense, and he often looked at himself after games in which the Wildcats failed to produce offensively. Rarely, though, was Rutherford not on base.

He had a .577 on-base percentage and reached base via hit or walk in all but two of Warren County’s 20 games. In 17 of those games, Rutherford had at least one hit.

“He could do a lot,” Minch said. “He could bunt for a hit. If the ball was coming at him he wouldn’t get out of the way. He could beat out groundballs to the shortstop, steal second, steal third base. I think I told him a couple times, ‘We go when you go.’ And he went a lot. He was definitely our leader there for sure.”

As he was on the mound, where he said he made a conscious effort to set a good example for Warren County’s younger pitchers.

“You’re not always gonna get good calls,” Rutherford said. “Some younger kids get flustered and they’re out there throwing their hands up. I just try – you just keep up there and you do what you can control. I try to tell them that you can only control how you play, you can’t control what (the umpires) call.”

Rutherford’s athletic career at Warren County ended a little more abruptly than he had hoped – a 1-0 loss to cross-town rival Skyline in the Conference 28 tournament quarterfinals, a game in which Rutherford tossed a complete game and scattered four hits, will “bother me for a long time,” he said – but he added that he didn’t want that loss to define a spring that saw Warren County go 15-4 in the regular season.

Rutherford, a three-sport athlete at Warren County, said he’s learned valuable life lessons on the field from his coaches throughout his high school career that will help him in everyday life. He will further his education at Virginia Tech alongside his brother in the fall.

“He definitely left his mark here, for sure, and he’s left some footprints here,” Minch said. “The younger kids are definitely gonna look to Joe Rutherford, try to catch him. But whatever he does in life down the road, he’s gonna be successful. We know that. A lot of people know that, and that says a lot to his character.”

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