Falcons’ playoff run ends with regional loss to Page County

WOODSTOCK – The playoff magic for Central High School’s baseball team came to an end Monday afternoon.

The Falcons, hosting Page County in the quarterfinal round of the Region 2A East tournament, couldn’t hold an early lead as the Panthers struck for a pair of late runs in the top of the sixth inning, and Page County starting pitcher Tristan Eppard limited Central to five hits in a complete-game effort as the Panthers picked up a 3-2 victory.

The win sends Page County into Wednesday’s regional semifinal game at Goochland.

Central, meanwhile, saw its season come to an end with Monday’s loss after reaching its first regional tournament since 2010. The Falcons reached the eight-team Region 2A East field after upsetting the top two seeds in last week’s Conference 35 tournament en route to the conference championship.

“We had three huge accomplishments this year,” Falcons first-year head coach Sean Semones said following the loss. “We won on Strasburg’s field, which has never been done. We hosted a regional game, that’s never been done. We won a conference championship this year and that’s never been done. It’s been a helluva season, man.

“And you saw the crowd here today. That’s incredible. I’ve never seen a crowd here that big. … I think Central baseball’s on the map and we’ve really got people here supporting us.”

Eppard did his best to make sure Central’s season would extend no further than Memorial Day. Not only did he stymie the Falcons after surrendering a pair of third-inning runs on the mound for Page County (15-7), but he also had two RBI singles in the win, including the game-tying hit in the sixth.

Eppard limited Central (11-13) to an earned run on five hits, a walk, a hit batter and nine strikeouts. The right-hander retired 13 of the final 14 batters he faced.

“We hung around and Tristan kept us in the ballgame,” Panthers head coach Wayne Comer said. “The last two or three ballgames, he’s our best pitcher so what else can you ask of him?”

Most of Central’s success against Eppard came in the third inning when the Falcons seized a 2-0 lead after a one-out walk by catcher Mason Marston and a single from Luke Estep set up Josue Rosario’s two-run single up the middle.

The Falcons struggled to find the timely hit outside of the third inning, however, as they stranded four baserunners in the loss, all in scoring position. Three of those runners were stranded in the first two frames, including two in the first inning.

Central got a leadoff single from Jared Rice in the first but couldn’t move him up on a sacrifice bunt. Estep – who was 3-for-3 with a run scored and a stolen base – singled one out later before both were left on after a pair of groundouts.

“The first inning could’ve really changed the game too, but not getting that sac bunt really hurt us,” Semones said. “A couple key plays there really changed the outcome of that game.”

Page County, which left the bases loaded in three different innings, cut Central’s lead in half in the fourth inning on the first of Eppard’s two RBI singles and took the lead with two more runs off Falcons starter Johnathan Baker in the sixth.

Nathan Lucas opened the sixth with a lead-off single for the Panthers, who then loaded the bases on a pair of walks – one intentional – with no outs. Eppard tied the game when he greeted Estep – who came on in relief of Baker – with an RBI single on a sharp grounder down the third-base line on an 0-2 pitch.

An obstruction call on a Central defender on the play also wiped out the inning’s first out after Tristan Gordon was originally tagged out after getting hung up between second and third.

“Just gotta put the ball in play, hit it somewhere and make them make the mistakes,” Eppard said.

Page County sent the go-ahead run across the plate in the next at-bat when Josh Good drew a five-pitch walk with the bases loaded after taking two borderline pitches for balls three and four.

“It came down to those couple pitches in that sixth and it came down to that ground ball down the third-base line, which was questionable. It could’ve been foul,” Semones said. “… Those couple tough calls right there really put them ahead and that changed the momentum.”

Baker took the loss for Central after allowing three earned runs on five hits, two walks, a hit batter and seven strikeouts in five-plus innings. He worked around danger twice before struggling in the sixth, as he knocked down a line drive for a 1-3 putout to strand a runner at second in the second inning and fired back-to-back strikeouts after Eppard’s single in the fourth to leave the bases loaded.

“He started out as a reliever. We know he can’t go up to 90, 100 pitches. His count got up there and he started to wear down,” Semones said of Baker, a senior. “He started to wind down, he lost his juice. Pitched a great game but like I said, just lost his juice and he couldn’t get through that sixth.”

Ryan Cave joined Eppard with two hits for Page County.