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WINCHESTER — Technically, nothing was on the line when Millbrook hosted James Wood in Thursday’s Class 4 Northwestern District baseball finale on Thursday.

The Pioneers had already clinched the regular-season title and the top seed for its pod for the upcoming district playoffs.

But for the Colonels, the game had plenty of meaning.

“It was for pride,” James Wood coach Adrian Pullen said after his squad knocked off previously unbeaten Millbrook 3-2 in a thriller.

Relief pitcher Colin McGuire worked out of two huge jams in the last two innings and the Colonels (9-3, 8-2 district) scratched out three early runs to get past Pioneers ace Jerrod Jenkins.

“It was probably the best feeling that I’ve felt this year,” said McGuire. “I’m only a sophomore and I lost my last year to COVID. This definitely hits the spot. It is great.”

“This is honestly what we’ve been working on all year,” said Colonels outfielder Jayden Nixon, who scored two runs (including the eventual game-winner) and drove in another. “We wanted them. We knew they were going to be the toughest coming [into the season] most likely. That’s all we wanted right there, honestly.”

It didn’t come easy for James Wood against the Pioneers (11-1, 9-1), who had found a way all season to come up with a big play when they needed it.

Millbrook certainly had the opportunity to tie or win in its final two trips to the plate.

Jenkins led off the bottom of the sixth with a double deep into the left-center field gap and moved up to third on Hayden Burke’s flyout to right before being replaced by a courtesy runner.

Pullen then decided to bring in McGuire for starter Kaden Spaid, who had given up just three hits, but was nearing his pitch limit.

“Kaden, he didn’t want to come out,” Pullen said. “But I told him his brother would have his back and he would get us out. That’s what happened.”

McGuire made his coach’s words ring true. He struck out Nate Brookshire, second on the Pioneers with 12 RBIs, and William Croyle, who was hitting .467, to leave the tying run stranded at third.

“I basically just thought I need to throw strikes because they are a good team,” McGuire said. “I thought that if I pounded the zone I would come out on top today.”

McGuire and the Colonels weren’t out of the woods, yet.

With one out in the seventh, Carl Keenan and Ethan Burgreen reached on back-to-back singles. After Logan Hartigan failed twice in attempting to bunt for a hit, McGuire struck out the .429 hitter on a 2-2 pitch.

Millbrook cleanup hitter Harrison Madagan then walked to load the bases and to bring up the switch-hitting Jenkins. McGuire wasted no time, striking out Jenkins on three pitches to the delight of the loud James Wood fans.

“Basically, I just wanted to stay low and outside with him and beat him with speed,” said McGuire, who pumped his fist after getting the final out.

It ended a tough night for the Pioneers, who left runners in scoring position in six of their seven at-bats.

“We failed miserably in situational hitting,” Millbrook coach Brian Burke said. “We struck out in some big situations.”

Pullen said he obviously had confidence that McGuire could get the job done in relief.

“Colin has been throwing well,” Pullen said. “We’ve brought him in relief the last couple of times out. He didn’t pitch real well against Handley the last time he started, but out of the bullpen he’s been lights out. I had a whole lot of faith in him tonight.”

James Wood never trailed in the contest, despite getting just three hits against Jenkins, who entered the contest 3-0 with a 0.50 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 28 innings.

The Colonels scored in the opening inning as Nixon drew a one-out walk, moved to third on Spaid’s single up the middle and scored on Aden Payne’s groundout.

James Wood tacked two more on in the third. Jacob Roy drew a leadoff walk, swiped second and scored on Nixon’s single down the left-field line. After swiping second base, Nixon scored when Spaid’s liner to right was dropped.

“We knew we had to come out hot against him because if he gets in a groove he’s hard to beat,” Nixon said of Jenkins, who beat the Colonels 3-1 earlier this season. “We knew if we could get on him early, we’d have a very good chance of winning this game.”

“When you have a quality pitcher such as Jerrod on the mound, you have to get to him early,” Pullen said.

“Jerrod fell behind in the count tonight, which was unusual for him,” Burke said of his junior right-hander, who struck out seven and walked three in six innings. “He was having to battle from behind in counts. … They put the ball in play and they made hard outs against Jerrod.”

Millbrook fought back in the bottom of the third for two runs. Sebastian Tringali drew a leadoff walk, stole second and scored on Carl Keenan’s single to left. Keenan later scored on Madagan’s two-out single to left.

But until McGuire entered, Spaid frustrated the Pioneers, especially with runners on base. The senior right-hander allowed three hits and three walks, while striking out four.

“Kaden is a competitor,” Pullen said. “He’s a gamer. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

“It was a great baseball game,” Burke said of the contest. “James Wood is a good team. They compete and they battle. They’re gritty and they’re well-coached. They are just hard-nosed baseball players.”

While the contest was a thriller, both teams know that it means nothing in the grand scheme of the postseason. Only the district tournament finalists advance to regional play.

“We broke this season into three seasons,” Pullen said. “We play 12 games, so the first six games were Season 1 and then the second six. Now, Season 3 starts Tuesday. It’s win and keep playing.”

“I told them at 12:01 (a.m.), it starts a new day and a new season begins,” Burke said of his postgame talk with his squad. “We’ve got to put this behind us and everybody starts out 0-0. We’ve got a second season to look forward to.”

Om Tuesday at 6 p.m., Millbrook will host Handley (2-10, 0-10), while James Wood welcomes Sherando (7-5, 6-4).

The Colonels defeated the Warriors 17-4 and 10-0 during the regular season, but Pullen is wary of Pepper Martin’s club.

“It doesn’t mean anything now,” Pullen said. “It’s all Season 3 now and it all starts over. Everyone is 0-0. Coach Martin was my high school assistant coach and I learned a lot from him. I will never count him out.”

But Thursday’s win certainly sent the Colonels into the playoff on a high note.

“This is huge,” McGuire said. “This is easily the biggest win of our season already and it’s not even done yet. We still have playoffs. This is the mark that lets us go into the playoffs with a groove.”

— Contact Walt Moody at
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