07/30/2008 – Daily News Record
Written By Dustin Dopirak Daily News Record Sports Desk LURAY – By the time center fielder Chris Murphy – all 5-foot-10, 160 pounds of him – launched a 2-1 fastball from Jordan Yost over the wall in right center field, the irony had become almost comical. Here were the Harrisonburg Turks – proprietors of the Valley Baseball League’s weakest offense and missing their best hitter by far in outfielder Drew Johnson – outslugging the league’s most powerful team and turning this playoff series on its ear. Murphy’s was the last of five homers the No. 7 seed Turks crushed on the evening. Though all of them were solo shots, they combined with a stellar performance by starting pitcher Eric Thomas to give Harrisonburg a 7-2 win over No. 2 seed Luray and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three first round playoff series. For a team that hit a measly .237 during the season and scored a league-low 167 runs, the night was a welcome change. Especially after Johnson – who was hitting a team-best .364 – went home to Nevada to get his tonsils removed. "It’s just like it’s a complete flip of our season," Harrisonburg coach Bob Wease said. "We came in tonight the lowest hitting team in the league, and we didn’t look like it tonight, did we?" They didn’t, and the difference was evident early. Third baseman Brett Stewart, the first batter of the second inning, began the scoring by turning on a 1-1 inside fastball from VMI left-hander Travis Smink and launching it over the left-center field wall. "He was working me away the first two pitches," said Stewart, an infielder at Appalachian State. "I was sitting on something in, and he came in and I hit it. … For us to jump out to the lead was huge I think. Just keep it, and never look back." Indeed, from there they never trailed. Left fielder B.J. Wheeler (Oklahoma City) kept things going in the fourth by taking an outside fastball opposite field over the left field wall. Designated hitter Wilsisky Baez (Western Oklahoma State) tacked on another run in the inning with an RBI double. After Luray finally answered with an RBI double by former Turner Ashby High School star Justin Miller (Ohio State) in the bottom of the fourth, the Turks answered with an RBI double by Troy right fielder Michael Precise in the top of the fifth. Miller drove in another run with a groundout in the fifth to make it 4-2, but Wheeler came up in the seventh and launched perhaps the most majestic blast of the night, turning on a 1-0 hanging changeup and pummeling it over the left center field fence. "I’ve been hitting the ball hard all year, but it’s been going straight to people or at the warning track," said Wheeler, who didn’t hit a home run in the regular season. "Finally today, they were going over the fence. It’s about time." Baez followed with a homer in the eighth, and Murphy (Southern Illinois) mashed his in the ninth. That allowed Thomas, a right-hander from Bethune Cookman, to work with a lead, and that was devastating for the Bulldogs. With a lethal array of pitches – four-seam and two-seam fastballs, sliders, change-ups and split-fingers – he held the Bulldogs to just two runs on three hits in eight innings, striking out six batters while walking three. "His slider’s nasty, his two-seamer dives," catcher Mike Pericht said. "He’s got a splitty that can just fall off the table at any second. His stuff is just dirty. It’s just filthy." The win suddenly puts the Turks, who have been battling from out of a hole since they started 2-10, in the driver’s seat. Should they win at Memorial Stadium in today’s 7:30 p.m. game, they would eliminate a team that finished the year tied for first place. "It’s huge," Pericht said. "Now we have the momentum going home tomorrow. They’re one game away from being eliminated, and they’re one of the top teams in the league. I don’t know what they’re expecting, if they’re ticked off or if they’re ready to go home or what, but I mean, we’ve got momentum." Harrisonburg 010 210 111 – 7 12 1 Luray 000 101 000 – 2 3 1 Thomas, Wood (9) and Pericht; Smink, Yost (7) and Johnson. W-Thomas. L-Smink. HR-H: Stewart, Wheeler 2, Baez, Murphy.