Relief pitcher Jason Lombard had just taken the mound in the bottom of the seventh inning Thursday night, charged with preserving Greater Loudoun's one-run lead over the Maryland Braves. With two runners on base, Lombard complicated things by walking the first batter he faced.
But even in the face of a bases-loaded situation, and while making a rare pitching appearance, Lombard finished off the game with two straight strikeouts and a groundout for a 4-3 win. Normally an outfielder, Lombard saved the victory and gave Greater Loudoun a boost as the team began its final month of preparation for the 16-year-old Babe Ruth World Series.
"I knew if I went out there, I would have to throw strikes. I just didn't think I would actually go out there," said Lombard, a junior at Millbrook who had several strong relief efforts in late June at the Beckley (W.Va.) Bash. "This team was legit, and we will be facing teams like this in the World Series."
The Lions will be the host team when the World Series arrives in Purcellville for the week of Aug. 14 through 21. And as the team has worked its way through a schedule that has included play in two leagues and several travel tournaments, Thursday's performance was exactly the kind Greater Loudoun Manager Sam Plank has been hoping for.
"Right now we are looking for guys to establish themselves and win a job for the World Series," said Plank. "We have a bunch of different personalities on this team, and a lot of them are from different schools, but we need people to take on a role."
Greater Loudoun finished its Babe Ruth regular-season schedule in late June, having posted a 10-4-1 record against other teams from Loudoun County. But Plank sought even more competition for his team, so he entered the Lions in the Northern Virginia Travel Baseball League.
"We are in this league because we want to face teams that are really competitive," said Plank, who is also the head coach at Stone Bridge. "The Braves were certainly one of the better teams we've played and to win against them is pretty impressive."
So far, the Lions have won seven of their 11 games against NVTBL foes, but Plank said he believes Greater Loudoun must master a few intangibles to make a dent in the World Series.
The Lions' success for the remainder of the summer also hinges on the health of one of their top pitchers. Stone Bridge junior right-hander Ryan Shugars is working his way back from tendinitis in his throwing arm. Shugars was 4-1 for Stone Bridge this past season, and he began physical therapy on the arm Monday. Plank said he is optimistic that Shugars will be at full strength by mid-August, when the World Series opens.
Until then, the Lions will continue to rely heavily on ace left-hander Casey Hartman (Potomac Falls), a consistent workhorse on the mound. And on offense, the Lions have relied on sharp "situational hitting," which Plank said has been a major reason why Greater Loudoun has been winning tight games.
On Thursday night, an RBI single by first baseman Ryan Muller (Heritage) gave the Lions the winning run by bringing in speedy second baseman David Ball (Stone Bridge).
"One of the things about this team is that everyone is so even in talent and everyone on the roster can contribute," said Plank. "But winning in the World Series is going to take a total team effort, and we can't make any mistakes."