Marshall this season allowed 105 runs in the first 11 games but has given up only 31 runs in the last 10 games. It’s a drastic turnaround that can be attributed to a young team growing up at the same time as its first-year head coach, two key defensive changes and the return from injury of James Madison University-bound left-hander Mike Evans.
The Statesmen (8-13), who started 0-7, clinched a Virginia AAA Northern Region tournament berth with a 6-5 comeback win over McLean on Wednesday night in the Liberty District quarterfinals. They will play Langley at 8 p.m. Friday at McLean in the league semifinals. Marshall and Langley split their games during the regular season.
The benefit of the positional switch that Coach Aaron Tarr said “stabilized everything” — freshman Justin Han taking over at second base, allowing athletic sophomore John Bennett to move to center field — was evident in the seventh inning of the win over McLean.
Han, initially earmarked for the junior varsity and still listed on that roster on the team’s Web site, started a double play ball for the first two outs of the inning. Then Bennett made a diving catch about 10 feet from the fence to end the game.
“That was part of it, figuring out where guys go,” said Tarr, who inherited a green roster after Joe McDonald left to become coach at new Loudoun County school Champe. “We were just a sieve at the beginning of the season. Of those  runs, I’m sure that fewer than 50 percent of them were earned. I mean, it’s a big number.”
One byproduct of a lousy defense is that pitchers end up facing more batters, which creates demand for more pitching. So Marshall has developed a reliable No. 3 arm, sophomore right-hander Will Brooke, who has thrown about 40 innings.
The Statesmen played without 6-foot-4 lefty Mike Evans, one of the team’s three seniors, until recently when he returned from a potentially season-ending knee injury he sustained playing rec league basketball about two weeks before the start of tryouts.
Since coming back, Evans is 14 for 24 at the plate and has allowed two runs in 12 innings.
“I have an enormous amount of respect for that kid because he’d been told his high school career was over,” Tarr said. “He hit a low point a little bit with that and then decided to fight himself back. It really is a big deal for the team.”
Prior to Evans’s return, first-team all-district sophomore catcher Mitch Blackstone and another 6-4 left-handed pitcher, junior Riley Cummins, had carried the Statesmen. Blackstone on Wednesday night tied the game against McLean with a two-run homer in the fifth inning off junior Joey Sullivan, who had struck out 14 in his previous outing against Marshall. Senior Kekoa Yamaguchi followed Blackstone’s homer with a double and scored the winning run on an Evans single.
The 0-7 start to the season came against teams that since have clinched seven of the 16 region tournament spots, including district regular season champions Centreville (Concorde), Madison (Liberty) and Lake Braddock (Patriot).
Even so, Tarr said his inexperience as a head coach hindered progress for his inexperienced team.
“I figured out what the hell I was doing,” said Tarr, who had been an assistant in the program for three years. “In hindsight, I see what I could have done to set us up so much more. I could have acclimated them to the speed of the game better. Through the first 10 games, our practices weren’t tight enough, they weren’t hard enough and what we were practicing just wasn’t as applicable as it should have been or didn’t address the real issue.
“Now it’s amazing. All the kids are so happy.”
Related: Thursday baseball schedule