Jamestown High baseball coach John Cole made the right baseball move Saturday, but it turned out to put the Wright guy at the plate for Salem. And the rest is history.
Salem and Jamestown were tied 1-1 in the Class D championship game on a hot afternoon at Salem Memorial Ballpark. It’s the bottom of the seventh and Salem’s Parker Stallard is on second base with two outs. Senior Joseph Quinn, the River Ridge District Player of the Year and Salem’s consensus best player, is due up.
What do you do? You walk him, of course. That avoids pitching to Quinn and also sets up a force at second and third.
So, instead of Quinn it’s junior Matt Wright at the plate, and sure enough he lines a hit into the leftfield alley to win the ballgame and give the Spartans their first state baseball championship in 41 years of Salem High School. That’s baseball.
“I expected it,” said Quinn, who has come up big at the plate all season. “It was good strategy with a runner on second. I was ready to hit, but when they walked me I turned back and looked Matt in the eye and I knew he could do it.”
Wright was somewhat surprised to get the chance to be the hero, but he relished it. He took ball one, then a strike, followed by ball two. With a 2-1 count Jamestown pitcher E.A. Woolwine, a tough to hit side-armer, hung one over the plate and Wright jumped on it. He threw his hands in the air in celebration halfway to first.
“I was looking for something in that general area, and there it was,” he said. “I knew I hit it well, and when I saw it get over the shortstop and the leftfielder was sticking his glove out, I knew it was in there. It was a crazy feeling, something I’d never felt before.”
Stallard raced around third and slid into home as the Salem dugout emptied onto the field. Wright was buried by teammates on the right side of the infield and the celebration was on.
It was a fitting ending to an exciting game and a memorable season. It was the Spartans first game on the Salem Memorial diamond in years.
“I was looking forward to playing there,” said Wright. “We do our off-season workouts at the Red Sox batting cages in the winter, and we all said we wanted to be on this field on June 9.”
The game started about an hour late on a very hot day. Spotsylvania beat Abingdon, 13-8, in eight innings in the Class 3 game that started at 10 am and didn’t finish until 1:15 pm. The Class 4 game was scheduled for 1 pm, but by the time the field was prepared and the two teams took infield it was around 2 pm.
Sophomore Zian Honaker got the start on the mound for the Spartans, not having pitched since the state quarterfinal win over Woodgrove on June 5. Salem coach Wes McMillan pulled Honaker before the maximum pitch count in that game with an eye toward starting him Saturday if the Spartans would get there.
They did, thanks to a strong pitching effort by Caleb Lingenfelter in Friday’s 8-3 win over Fauquier at Kiwanis Field. The Spartans trailed 3-1 after five and a half innings but scored seven in the bottom of the sixth to win going away. Lingenfelter settled down and mowed down the Falcons with a complete game effort to put the Salemites in Friday’s championship game.
Honaker took the ball Friday for the biggest game of his life. The sophomore had never lost a game in 11 high school decisions over two years, but he couldn’t help be a little nervous.
“A little bit, but I slept good the night before,” he said. “This was easily the biggest crowd I ever played in front of. I played in front of some big crowds in travel ball, but they were just people there to see a game. These were all my friends and Salem fans, and that’s a big difference.”
Honaker got off to a good start. The Eagles went three up, three down in the top of the first and Honaker pumped his fist after the second of two strikeouts ended the inning.
Salem quickly got Woolwine in hot water in the bottom of the inning. Stallard reached base on an error by the shortstop to lead off the inning, then Jadon Fetrow was hit by a pitch. Quinn moved them over with a sacrifice bunt and Wright was hit by a pitch to load the bases before Trevor Gallagher popped up for the second out.
The Spartans got a run when Woolwine balked with Hunter Clifton at the plate. That was the extent of the damage as Clifton struck out on a check swing and Woolwine was lucky to get out of the inning with just one run allowed.
Salem got a 6-4-3 Quinn-Fetrow-Clifton doubleplay to end the top of the second and Salem quickly threatened again as Austin Sowers and Zian Honaker both singled to open the bottom of the inning. Zac Honaker’s sacrifice attempt failed as Sowers was forced out at third, and Woolwine fanned Stallard and got Fetrow to ground out to end the inning with no runs.
The Spartans left two on in the bottom of the fourth and got out of a jam in the top of the fifth when Jamestown had first and third with two outs. Wright picked the runner off first, and he was tagged out in a rundown before the runner on third was able to cross home plate.
Jamestown finally broke through against Honaker in the top of the sixth with a double and an RBI single, but Zian escaped without further damage. Still, it was a new ballgame at that point with both starting pitchers still in the game on a hot day.
“It was tough to stay hydrated,” said Honaker. “I was starting to get tired after the third inning, but I kept sipping water in the dugout when we were batting.”
Honaker retired the side in the top of the seventh and Wright was instrumental in that inning as well. He threw out a runner trying to steal second, and the next batter followed with a single that likely would have scored a run.
After seven innings Honaker had thrown 91 pitches. The Virginia High School League limit for a game is 110, and you can finish pitching to a batter if you started that batter with fewer.
“I figured he had one more inning,” said McMillan. “I had Joe(Quinn) warmed up. He would have been the next pitcher in if we needed one.”
He wasn’t needed. Zac Honaker opened the bottom of the seventh with a single up the middle. Stallard failed on a sacrifice attempt, but with two strikes he singled to left for first and second with no outs.
Fetrow was up next, and he tried to bunt as well. However, the catcher caught Honaker wondering too far off second and picked him off with Stallard moving to second during the rundown. Fetrow then flied to shallow center for the second out and Quinn was due up next.
“I was confident with Joe coming up, he’s the one I want up in that situation,” said McMillan. “I was shocked when they walked him. They don’t know our players.”
And so the story goes, as Wright followed with the biggest hit in Salem baseball history, setting off a wild celebration on Haley Toyota Field.
“It was unreal,” said Quinn. “I knew we won as soon as he hit it and I was rounding the bases pointing at the sky. It was a great way to end the season.”
Brothers Zac and Zian Honaker finished with two hits each and Wright’s hit was the only RBI of the game for Salem. Stallard scored both runs for the Spartans.
Honaker scattered seven hits while striking out five and walking two. The win gave him an 8-0 record for the season and he’s now 12-0 for his high school career after going 4-0 as a freshman.
“It was the most intense game I’ve ever been involved in,” said McMillan. “That was an excellent team we played, they didn’t have a weak link. That pitcher was 11-1 with a 1.07 earned run average and they were saving him for the championship game. He was the best pitcher we’ve seen all year.”
Salem ended the season at 20-3. It was not only the program’s first state championship, but the Spartans had never won a regional title prior to this year.
“I can’t express how proud I am of this team,” said McMillan. “It was a team effort all season long.