SALEM, Va. — It turned out to be the most unheralded of hurlers who finally put the brakes on Abingdon’s 2018 postseason hit parade.
Spotsylvania junior Brian Baker crafted six superb — and scoreless — innings of relief as the Knights took a 13-8, eight-inning win over the Abingdon Falcons on Saturday in the Virginia High School League Class 3 state championship game at Salem Memorial Ballpark.
Spotsylvania (21-5) scored five times with two outs in the top of the eighth inning to seal the win as Abingdon (23-3) was denied the first state baseball title in school history.
“It hurts,” said Abingdon senior Thomas Francisco. “It cuts deep. I’m proud of everybody on our team though. I wish it would have went a different way today, but you’ve got to accept it and move on.”
Abingdon rallied from a 5-0 deficit in the top of the first inning, but the second five-spot put up by the Knights was too much to overcome.
“I love this team,” said Abingdon coach Mark Francisco. “They believe. I think most teams go down 5-0 in the state championship game, they’re going to kind of pack it in. But we came back and took an 8-5 lead and felt really good about things.”
Abingdon’s pitching plans were in flux when starter Cade Hungate got lifted in favor of Bryson Thomas after retiring just one of the seven batters he faced in the first inning. Two walks, two hit batters and three hits were damaging.
However, Abingdon scored twice in the first inning and six times in the second inning to turn that 5-0 deficit into an 8-5 lead.
Bryson Thomas pitched well, but Spotsylvania chipped away, scoring once in the fourth and twice in the fifth to pull even with the Falcons.
Thomas Francisco — Abingdon’s third pitcher of the day — entered in the fifth inning and held the Knights in check until things fell apart in the fateful eighth inning.
“Our pitching staff was thin,” Mark Francisco said. “Bryson Thomas gave us all he had and Thomas came in and I thought he pitched really well until the eighth and they just got to him. It’s a tough loss, but I’m really proud of the way our kids never quit and fought till the end. We just had some mistakes at some timely spots when we didn’t need to have them.”
The mistakes manifested in the eighth as Spotsylvania sent 10 men to the plate and scored all of its runs with two outs.
Eugene Snyder crossed the plate on a wild pitch, nine-hole hitter Blake Boggs smacked a RBI double, Dante Fairchild blooped a two-run single and Trevor Croson drove in a run.
Having earned an 8-6 eight-inning win over Brentsville District the day before in the semifinals, the Knights had no problem with the pressure.
The 13 runs were the most Abingdon had allowed in a game this season.
“We’ve been preaching that the scouting report is out on us, and it says we bang balls off the fence,” said Spotsylvania coach Travis Payne. “But bloop hits can win games. A lot of bloop hits went in our favor the last two days, and it was awesome to see.”
Payne could use the word awesome to describe what Baker did on the mound as well.
After starting Eugene Snyder walked Ethan Ketron to begin the third inning, Baker entered and dominated.
Did Baker think his number would get called?
“Kind of,” he said. “Our other reliever, Trevor [Croson], pitched Friday, and unless Eugene went a complete game, it was going to have to be me.”
Baker isn’t exactly the ace of the staff.
“I think he’s thrown 11 innings on the year,” Payne said.
“Eleven innings,” Payne said. “All year.”
Baker yielded just three singles, while striking out seven.
“We were swinging the bats really well the first two innings and then after that kid came in for some reason we just never could adjust to him,” Mark Francisco said. “I guess that’s why they are the state champions and we’re not. Their pitcher kept us off stride. We’ve been an offensive club all year long and were not able to get it done today.”
Most impressive by Baker is that he issued just one walk.
“I just got to the point that I said, they’re going to hit the ball,” Baker said. “I just have to throw strikes because that’s what was killing us. I went in there and threw strikes and had a breaking ball that was pretty effective.”
The most crucial sequence for Baker came in the bottom of the sixth inning.
After walking Chase Hungate and giving up a single to Tanner Barrs, he faced the heart of Abingdon’s lineup with no outs.
He responded by striking out Cade Hungate looking, getting Thomas Francisco swinging and retiring Kevin Christy — who was 6-for-8 combined in the semifinals and finals — on a flyball to right field to avert disaster.
“He had a nice curveball and was just keeping us off guard,” Thomas Francisco said. “We had chances in some innings, but we just didn’t get it done.”
Abingdon has four players who have either committed or signed with NCAA Division I programs.
The Falcons had outscored its previous five postseason opponents by a combined score of 57-9.
The Southwest Virginia squad averaged 11.4 runs per game this season.
None of that mattered to Baker.
“I think of it as any other game,” Baker said “I’m going to go out there and shove it.”
A graduation ceremony was held on the field prior to the game for Spotsylvania’s 11 seniors, but it was a junior who turned out to be the hero as the school located near Fredericksburg claimed the first state championship in program history.
“We’ve had three stud pitchers we’ve leaned on,” Payne said. “But it was Brian Baker’s turn, and he was ready to go. He was amped up, but he kept his emotions in check. He deserved it. He worked his butt off this year.”
Baker was at the bottom of the celebratory dogpile after getting Cade Hungate to bounce into a game-ending fielder’s choice.
Abingdon could just look on with disappointment at the scene.
Thomas Francisco took a moment to look to the future as he reflected on the deepest postseason run for the Falcons since 1984.
“We played four freshmen, sometimes five freshmen, this year so they got a taste of what varsity baseball was all about,” he said. “I hope these younger kids get a feeling of what it’s like to be in a state championship game, and now they need to win it for Abingdon because we couldn’t get it done.”
Cade Hungate and Thomas Francisco — both four-year starters — shared a hug in the dugout after seeing their careers end with 85 total victories.
Christy, Bryson Thomas and Colin Matney were the other seniors for the Falcons.
“They’ve had a lot of success, and I really wanted to see them go out as state champions,” Mark Francisco said. “When it was 8-5 I felt good about it. ... But they’re going to be successful in life. I’ve talked about that all year long; these kids have great character. My senior class had a cumulative grade point average of 3.93. They’re going to be successful in life, and that’s why we coach — to try to raise men to be the best they can be.”