Standout pitcher Joe Vanderplas and his Fairfax High teammates are playing their best baseball at the perfect time. The Rebels have struggled throughout much of the spring season but, with Vanderplas on the mound last Friday night, concluded the regular season schedule with a convincing 12-3 Liberty District road win at South Lakes High in Reston. It was the third straight win for Fairfax, which entered this week's district tournament with a 9-11 overall record and as the No. 4 seed.
South Lakes, which entered districts as the No. 7 seed, closed the regular season with a tough seven-game losing streak and entered the postseason with a 5-15 record. In order to qualify for the upcoming 16-team Northern Region tournament, South Lakes must win two district tournament games - a district play-in game as well as a quarterfinals-round game.
But at playoff time, anything can happen. Seahawks coach Galvin Morris, going into the postseason, was not about to sell his underdog team's chances short of surprising some people. South Lakes has some solid starting pitchers in seniors John Beck and Will Sweet, who are capable of pitching lights out ball when on top of their games. Also, a line-up that features standout hitters such as senior center fielder Wilfredo Corps-Ortiz, third baseman Billy McLaughlin and outfielder Ryan Forrest could break out for a few big games at districts.
But in Friday's regular season finale, the host Seahawks, celebrating their Senior Night, were going up against one of the region's top pitchers in Vanderplas, a left-hander who has accepted a scholarship to pitch at the University of Tennessee next school year.
Although Vanderplas, an outstanding wrestler for Fairfax the past several winters, struggled with his control early on against South Lakes, he got into a groove after a tough first inning and gave Fairfax a strong, although brief outing. The southpaw, who has a good fastball and stellar off speed pitches, pitched 3-2/3 innings, allowing three runs (2 earned) and four hits with six strikeouts. The abbreviated outing, meant to conserve Vanderplas for this week's districts, was nothing great from a statistical perspective. But following a bumpy first inning in which he threw 10 straight balls to start his night, Vanderplas got into his rhythm and threw like a front-line pitcher against a good South Lakes batting line-up that showed patience and scrapped for a few early runs.
"He's got some good stuff and he's a competitor," said Morris, the South Lakes coach, of Vanderplas. "I think he takes that wrestling mentality to the mound. I can see that one-on-one [mindset]."
Rick Freeman, the Fairfax High coach, said Vanderplas has been a pitching force throughout the season for the Rebels.
"He's pitched extremely well and he's been the man on the mound for us," said Freeman, who is in his first year of a second stint as head coach of Fairfax baseball. The skipper was at the helm of the Rebels from 1999-2007 before being coaching at Flint Hill School from 2008-10.
The Rebels have not always played good ball when Vanderplas has been on the mound. But they will be looking to give him all the support he needs in the postseason.
"He's a big, strong kid with a powerful arm," said Freeman, of his ace. "He's got some good stuff and when he's on he's a pretty intimidating kid on the mound."
Freeman said there are times when Vanderplas has had difficulties early in games like he did on Friday.
"Sometimes he comes out struggling against the first five or six guys he faces," said the coach. "He just didn't get the calls early in the [South Lakes] game and a couple of unfortunate things happened [in the field] behind him. We haven't always played great defense."
Vanderplas agreed he had a shaky start against the Seahawks.
"When I started off I wasn't in a zone," he said. "I just had to make some adjustments."
Fairfax junior right-hander Kyle Walsh entered the game with two outs in the fourth inning to relieve Vanderplas and did a nice job over 2-2/3 innings of scoreless ball to earn the win. Sophomore Brandon Ginch was the third Rebels' pitcher used on the night, recording the game's final two outs in the seventh.
SOUTH LAKES jumped out of the gate with two runs in the bottom of the first inning to take a 2-0 lead. The Seahawks, who defeated Fairfax in the two teams' first meeting, 5-2, on April 14, were selective during that first inning as Vanderplas attempted to harness a fastball that initially could not find its way into the strike zone.
Leadoff batter Corps-Ortiz (1 hit, 1 walk) and No. 2 hitter Sweet both walked on four straight pitches. Next, McLaughlin hit a ball into the outfield which resulted in an error and loaded the bases. That brought up junior second baseman Nick Beaulac, who lofted a high, fly ball into right field. The ball, on the dreary, rain-drizzling evening, carried and landed at the base of the fence. Two runs scored on the extra base hit and the Seahawks still had runners on second and third with no outs.
But Vanderplas then seemed to put things together. He struck out the next two batters before hitting South Lakes catcher Austin Schweppe with a pitch to load the bases with two outs. But he struck out the next batter and Fairfax was finally out of the rocky first inning, trailing 2-0.
Fairfax then put together a four-run inning off Sweet, a right-hander who was hurt by three South Lakes errors in that sloppy second inning. Vanderplas and Tyler Lescure both hit singles to start the big inning. Later in the inning, after Fairfax had scored three unearned runs, shortstop and No. 3 batter Sean Ranson knocked an RBI single into right field to put his team ahead 4-2.
South Lakes got within 4-3 with a two-out rally in the third inning. With two outs, Forrrest (1 hit, 2 walks) hit a sizzling groundball off of Vanderplas for a single. Vanderplas, who was struck in the lower leg/foot on the batted ball, took a moment to gather himself before pitching to the next batter, sophomore first baseman Austin Gibbons, who grounded an RBI single into right field before being thrown out trying to go to second by Fairfax right fielder Dylan Lescure for the final out. But the run counted and South Lakes was within 4-3.
Fairfax began taking control of the game in the fourth inning by scoring three times and knocking out starter Sweet. Singles by Walsh (2 hits), Sam Weaver (2 runs), and leadoff hitter Mitch Ardinger, who reached base three times, made it 5-3 Fairfax.
Ginch, with Sweet now out of the game, then hit a high, fly ball over the left field fence for an apparent three-run homer. But a base-running mishap, as the Fairfax players were rounding the bases, resulted in the umpire ruling that Ginch had to return to first base. The official scoring was a two-run single. Nonetheless, by the end of the inning, Fairfax held a 7-3 lead.
Later in the game, Fairfax added a run in the sixth inning and four more in the seventh, the big hit of that final inning being an opposite field, two-run home run over the left field fence by left-handed hitting Vanderplas, who reached base in all four of his plate appearances. It was his second home run of the year, the first having come in a game versus Madison.
"It felt really good," said Vanderplas, of the round-tripper against South Lakes. "I'd been having some trouble at the plate lately."
In South Lakes' final at-bat, Fairfax back-up third baseman Kyle Rohlfing, a sophomore, made a leaping catch off a sizzling liner hit by McLaughlin for the first out of the inning. South Lakes did not score in that final inning and Fairfax was the 12-3 winner.
THE WIN was the third straight for Fairfax, which in its two prior games had won district home games versus both McLean and Jefferson. Vanderplas said the Rebels, who started off 0-4 this season, have showed good improvement over the course of the spring.
"We started the season with some tough losses and were down a little bit," said Vanderplas. "But we started going to work - coming to practices early and coming to the school on weekends for some extra work. I think we can beat anyone we play. I think we're playing at out high point right now."
As far as his playing future as a Volunteer at Tennessee and perhaps beyond, Vanderplas is looking forward to pitching at the next level.
"I'm really excited," he said, about going to Tennessee. "I'm going to work hard and pitch as well as I can. I want to pursue [a baseball career] as best as I can."
SOUTH LAKES celebrated its Senior Night festivities prior to Friday's game with each of the Seahawks' six seniors being introduced, along with family members. Those Seahawks who were honored were: Wilfredo Corps-Ortiz, Taylor Gose, John Beck, David Odlen, Wesley Casson, and Will Sweet.
"Will is the last `Sweet' to go through the program," chuckled coach Morris, who coached Will's two older brothers in past years.
"Senior Night is a way to show appreciation for what the seniors have done," said Morris. "I've yelled at them and given them a hard time at times, but they stuck around and it's great to recognize these guys. It's their night and their parents' night, and they'll be missed."