SALEM—Somewhere beneath the tangle of limbs and hastily flung hats was Brian Baker.

The Spotsylvania junior was buried all season, first within a deep Knights’ pitching rotation, and finally by a swarm of red-clad teammates on the infield sod of Salem Memorial Ballpark around 1 p.m. Saturday afternoon.

Before his well-rested right arm salvaged a 13–8 victory over Abingdon in the Class 3 state championship game, Baker had logged a scant 11 innings. A transfer from Fredericksburg Christian School, he arrived at tryouts with no defined role and few friends.

“I came in here not knowing anyone,” Baker said.

After Saturday, his name may enter area baseball lore. Baker flummoxed the Falcons with six innings of scoreless relief, and Spotsylvania broke open a tie game in the top of the eighth to claim the baseball program’s first state title—and the first in any sport since 1997.

Throughout his team’s run to just the third such feat in Spotsylvania County history (Courtland, 1995 and 2000), Knights coach Travis Payne preached repeatedly about the uncertain nature of June baseball.

“You never know,” Payne said of Baker. “He came in and he shoved. He was ready to go. He was ready for his moment, and I’m happy for him. The kid works hard, never complains, and he was there for everything.”

And Saturday’s contest indeed had it all. Seizing upon Abingdon starting pitcher Cade Hungate’s locational challenges, the Knights (21–5) batted around the order—plus one—in the top of the first, jumping out to 5–0 lead.

But Abingdon, a recruit-laden club located a skip and a [crow] hop from the Tennessee border, wasn’t daunted by an early deficit. The Falcons tagged Spotsylvania starter Eugene Snyder for two runs in the first and six in the second before Baker entered in relief.

“I told them before the game that it didn’t matter if we jumped up early,” Payne said. “It was going to be a battle, and we couldn’t give up. We had to fight, and did it the entire game.

“We never gave in. Our confidence was there the whole time, and things bounced our way today.”

The Knights chipped away, recovering one run in the fourth when senior Max Harper doubled off the Comfort Suites sign in left-center field (they offer special fan rates, if you’re interested) and Jonathan Rivard plated him with a sacrifice fly.

An inning later, a Dante Fairchild sacrifice fly and Trevor Croson RBI single tied the game at eight. Of course, the comeback wasn’t possible without Baker. His buckling breaking ball and leisurely-but-laser-precise fastball netted five strikeouts, and he yielded just three hits.

“We were swinging the bats really well the first two innings and after that kid came in, for some reason we could just never adjust to him,” Abingdon coach Mark Francisco said. “I guess that’s why they’re the state champions and we’re not. Their pitcher kept us off stride.”

Finally, in the eighth, Spotsylvania got a stroke of luck. After a pop out to start the inning, Snyder drew a walk and Jonathan Olsberg plugged his sacrifice bunt in the dirt a few inches in front of home plate.

“It was good enough to get the runner to second, but it was bad enough to cause a missed throw to first,” Payne quipped.

A few pitches later, Snyder slid home headfirst on a wild pitch to put the Knights ahead for the first time since the second inning. Before retaking the field, Spotsylvania tacked on four more runs for a 13–8 lead that proved as insurmountable as it was improbable.

Spotsylvania’s whirlwind day began well ahead of the scheduled 10 a.m. first pitch. Before putting on their helmets, the Knights’ 10 seniors donned graduation caps in a ceremony near home plate. Parents clambered atop the first-base dugout, craning for both video and a view.

“It was the best day of my life,” Harper said simply.

When it was almost over, Payne fought back tears. His right hand cradled the Knights’ new trophy, and above it, a wristband bore the initials D.M.P. scrawled in magic marker.

Doris Pennington, 81, died in a fire Sunday night in Spotsylvania, and Payne navigated the most important week of his coaching career with a heavy heart while mourning the loss of his grandmother.

On Tuesday, as the Knights prepared for a state quarterfinal at Hopewell, players conceived of the wristbands as a way to support their coach.

“That’s when I knew we were going to have a special week,” Payne said.

SPOTSYLVANIA 5 0 0 1 2 0 0 5—13 13 0

ABINGDON 2 6 0 0 0 0 0 0—8 8 3

Eugene Snyder, BRIAN BAKER (3), and Jonathan Olsberg. Cade Hungate, Bryson Thomas (1), THOMAS FRANCISCO, and Kevin Christy.



Joey LoMonaco: 540/368-5045

jlomonaco@freelancestar.com

@joeylomonaco

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