HOWARD COUNTY, MD — Howard baseball's Brendan Foster remained calm as freshman closer Ben Fader pitched himself into a sixth-inning jam Monday afternoon.
Foster sat on the bench, no longer in charge of preserving his team's slim lead over Marriotts Ridge, which entered the game tied with the Lions atop the county standings. He already did his part on the mound. Over 4.2 innings, the junior right-hander allowed two runs on two hits and recorded 10 strikeouts.
Now Foster was cheering on Fader, who allowed three straight hits — the third of which brought home a run — to start the sixth frame. The Mustangs were within 5-2 and had the top of the order coming to the plate.
But amid the adversity, Foster's confidence in his younger teammate never wavered.
"He's a great closer for sure; has a nasty curveball," Foster said of Fader after the Lions' 9-4 victory. "He had a rough start today, but he closed the game for us and he finished it for us, and we needed that."
Using that curveball and a well-spotted fastball, Fader escaped the inning without any further damage. He struck out the first two batters in the Mustangs' order looking, then induced a pop out from cleanup hitter Gavin Ross. A fist pump and a roar of excitement from Fader followed.
The Lions rode that momentum into the bottom half of the frame, tacking on four more insurance runs, and then again relied on Fader to close out the team's biggest win of the season.
"We played really, really well today," coach Nick Hoffner said. "We faced a really good pitcher in Josh [Olsufka] over there, and we were able to get some timely hits with runners on base and runners in scoring position, which is always huge."
The win puts Howard (12-2 county, 14-3 overall) in sole possession of first place in the county standings with three games to play. Marriotts Ridge, which has lost twice to the Lions this season, and Reservoir sit one game back.
"They got hits when they needed to and we did not. They fielded the ball when they needed to and we did not." Mustangs coach Paul Eckert said. "That was the difference in the game."
Howard began building its lead in the second inning by capitalizing on the first of Marriotts Ridge's four errors. Junior Jerry O'Neill was the beneficiary, reaching on a grounder to third base. He scored moments later, as Craig Wiley's RBI double landed just out of the reach of center fielder Dylan Anagnos.
That lead nearly vanished in the top of the third, however, as Foster dealt with some control issues against a patient and feisty top of the order. After two strikeouts to start the frame, three straight Mustangs hitters forced full counts. Foster ended up walking all of them.
In danger of walking home the tying run, Foster took a few deep breaths and buckled down. He needed only three pitches to strike out Ross swinging.
"When I got in that jam, it was looking at my coaches to calm down and step off and just rethink everything and get back to it," Foster said. "That helped me so much."
Foster also received plenty of early run support. While Marriotts Ridge (11-3, 12-3) left 12 runners on base, Howard frequently came through with runners in scoring position.
Never was that more apparent than in the Lions' four-run third inning. Cameron Morris and Alex Campbell began the hit barrage with back-to-back singles, setting the stage for the middle of the order. Brian Jakubek (3-for-4, two RBIs) then launched his second double, scoring Morris, and eventually crossed the plate himself on a two-run single from Ryan Kulick. Just like that, Foster had a 5-0 lead to work with.
The Lions went down in order in the fourth and fifth innings but finally chased Olsufka in the sixth after a RBI single from pinch hitter Gabe Delgado. Another pinch hitter followed, as junior John Shinnamon stepped into the batter's box against TJ Delmonte. Shinnamon welcomed Delmonte with a double over the right fielder's head to give Howard an 8-2 advantage.
"That's huge anytime you can pick up runs like that," Hoffner said. "And we also did a nice job scoring two runs on past balls, getting a good read on those balls and scoring on them. So the little things we did well there."
Marriotts Ridge also featured a few offensive standouts, namely Anagnos, Hunter Reeling and Cole Brown. The trio combined for six of the Mustangs' eight hits Monday.
However, their contributions paled in comparison to what Howard was able to produce up and down the lineup, and the Lions used that balance to take command of the county race with just one week left in the regular season.
Howard (12-2, 14-3) — 9, Marriotts Ridge (11-3, 12-3) — 4
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