FRONT ROYAL – Warren County’s baseball team is shifting its attention to postseason play with the Region 3B tournament set to begin on Thursday. The Wildcats do so playing perhaps its best baseball of the season.
Warren County closed the regular season with seven wins in its last eight ballgames, the finale coming in the form of a 15-1 drubbing of cross-town rival Skyline on Monday night in a game that was halted after five innings due to the mercy rule.
The Wildcats got solid pitching from junior right-hander Caleb Heflin – he allowed an unearned run on one hit and four walks over five innings – but it was his team’s performance at the plate that had Warren County head coach John Tierney feeling good about where the Wildcats stood as they prepared for the regional tournament.
Warren County had 10 hits against Skyline, including six that went for extra bases, drew 10 walks and scored at least one run in four of the game’s five innings.
“That’s what we’ve been waiting on, is the bats to come through, because everything else has been there all year,” said Tierney, whose team clinched the second seed in the Region 3B tournament with the win. “The pitching and defense has been there. If we can get everyone swinging the bat, we’re gonna be tough. And that’s what’s starting to happen. We feel like we’re peaking at the right time.”
The Wildcats (14-5, 7-2 Class 3 Northwestern District), who fell to district leader Brentsville in nine innings on Saturday, touched up Skyline starting pitcher Tyler Hugo early on Monday, striking for three runs in each of the first two innings.
Senior Dylan Johnson had RBI singles in the first and second innings, and classmate Ronnie Dodson blasted a two-run homer – his first of the season – and an RBI double in his first two at-bats.
“We kind of wanted to come out here and jump on them so we got our confidence up,” Dodson said.
“I felt like we really just went up there and … the seniors were like ‘this is our last regular-season game,’ so we just went up there and wanted to hit the ball, and just didn’t really think about it.”
Dodson and Johnson did most of the damage for the Wildcats, as each finished with three hits and combined for nine RBIs from the third and fourth spots in Warren County’s lineup. The Wildcats’ No. 5 hitter, sophomore Bryce Post, added two hits and two RBIs in the win.
Warren County blew the game open with an eight-run fifth inning, which included a two-run single by Heflin, a three-run double down the right-field line from Johnson and another RBI double by Dodson.
Monday marked the fourth time in the last six games that Warren County had scored 11 runs or more.
“In (batting practice) we’ve been taking it serious, trying to get on top of the ball, backspin line drive instead of popping it straight up like we have in the past,” Johnson said. “We really tried to get on top, line drives gap to gap.”
Warren County’s offensive outburst was more than enough for Heflin, who gave up a lone run in the bottom of the first inning when a Wildcat error, on a pop up that should’ve ended the frame, allowed Skyline’s only run to score.
Sam Harris’ single on a soft line drive to right in the fourth inning was the Hawks’ lone hit, and Heflin struck out two.
“We’re happy with him,” Tierney said of Heflin, who is 4-2 with a 1.62 ERA this spring. “He came out in relief in the Brentsville game. I think he threw three innings and he looked good there. He just came out here and kept going. He was throwing the ball well, getting ahead of hitters most of the night. He did have a couple walks but it was a good outing. He pitched well.”
Heflin’s counterpart, Hugo, didn’t fare nearly as well. The Skyline right-hander allowed 12 runs (eight earned) on seven hits, eight walks and five strikeouts in 4 ⅔ innings, and couldn’t get out of Warren County’s big fifth inning after dealing five walks in the frame and reaching the 110-pitch limit.
“He tried to grind it out,” Hawks head coach Jeff Monroe said of Hugo, who pitched Skyline past Brentsville in a 3-2 upset on May 7. “He didn’t have his best stuff tonight. We were hoping we’d get that spark that we had against Brentsville. To Tyler’s credit, he tried and that’s all we can ask of him. Just one of those things, they’re a good-hitting team. That one through five, they can smash the ball pretty good.”
Monroe, who praised the work of his large group of seniors, added that Skyline (4-16, 3-7) would have snagged a spot in the eight-team Region 3B tournament if it had been able to beat Warren County on Monday. Instead, the Hawks’ season came to an end.
The Wildcats will play on, and though their first-round opponent was not official on Monday night, Tierney and assistant coach Butch Rutherford said they were told their team would likely host John Marshall on Thursday evening.
The regional tournament appearance will be the third straight for Warren County, which features seven seniors and ended up a win short of a state tournament berth in 2018. The Wildcats were the third seed in last year’s Region 3B tournament.
“I definitely feel like it’s possible,” Dodson said of reaching the Class 3 state tournament, which would require the Wildcats to win two regional games. “Last year we had a good squad, we had a good team, but this year I feel like we’re more together. I feel like we have a better opportunity.”