By Ben Brooks and Chuck McGill -- firstname.lastname@example.org
Winchester pitcher Stephen Rivera fields a bunt and throws out a Front Royal hitter on July 22. The Royals season came to an end Friday in the VBL semifinals. Dennis Grundman/Daily file
WINCHESTER -- The Valley Baseball League seasons of Winchester and New Market ended Friday, as both teams were on the wrong end of sweeps in the playoff semifinals.
The Royals, a team known for its streaks all season, fell victim to the wrong kind at the wrong time. Just when they needed a return to the midseason form that saw them reel off a league-best 11 straight victories (the equivalent of one quarter of the regular season), they couldn't fully navigate their way through an unpredictable VBL post-season that gave new meaning to the word parity.
In the end, losses in eight of its final 12 games did in Winchester, which entered the eight-team VBL playoffs as the fifth seed but had home-field advantage in the semifinals after an entire opening round of upsets. A first-round sweep of Woodstock put the Royals in the semifinals for the first time since 2004 -- also their last championship season -- but Winchester lost two straight to eighth-seeded Covington, including one in which the red-hot Lumberjacks failed to get a hit.
"After that first series, the guys were feeling pretty good, and we tried to carry that over," said Royals third baseman Steven Sabins, who led the team in home runs (7) and RBIs (35). "We just didn't get the big hits when we needed them."
The Rebels, on the other hand, simply ran out of energy -- and players. New Market limped through the first round of the playoffs without a trusty backstop or enough position players to fill out a lineup card. Their starters were forced to go deeper into ballgames to reach a beleaguered bullpen, while the relievers had to spend their off days manning left field.
New Market outlasted Luray in three games in the first round before getting swept out of the semifinals by Haymarket. The Rebels lost eight of their last 11 games in the regular season and post-season combined.
"We spent all our energy trying to win the Luray series," New Market manager Lucas Jones said. "In the end, playing all those days in a row and not having the personnel to make changes, you could tell we were a little gassed going into the Haymarket series."
Pitching, which over the first three quarters of the season looked like it would be Winchester's Achilles' heel, was less of a problem toward the end of the season than run production. Stephen Rivera emerged as the staff ace (4-1, 3.93 ERA, 56 strikeouts in 52 1/3 innings), while Brett Stackhouse (4-3), Corey Williams (3-4), and Brandon Sinnery (1-1) pitched well at times down the stretch.
Offensively, however, the Royals, who for much of the season ranked just behind league-leader Staunton in team batting average, scored 37 runs in their last 12 games, just over three per game. Even that's a bit misleading, considering that in one of those games Winchester erupted for 12 runs.
That's not to say the Royals' hitters didn't strike fear in opposing pitchers for much of the summer. Five players drove in 20 or more runs -- Sabins, Jordan Steranka (30), Dave Fallon (28), Kevin Garcia (27) and leading hitter Aaron Dudley (22). As a team, Winchester just picked the wrong time to get cold.
"It was a team that probably had the least amount of talent and experience than any of the ones we've had in my three years," Royals manager John Lowery Jr. said. "But of the teams I've coached, this team improved the most from the beginning of the summer to the end."
New Market's issues didn't stem from quiet bats, but simply not enough of them. The team lost two catchers in the final two weeks of the season, forcing players like Sanchez Gartman to shift from left field to catcher in a pinch. The VBL's leading hitter, Kenny Mickens, was lost for the final week of the season and playoffs after getting beaned in the head with a pitch.
Those losses showed, as the Rebels scored more than five runs just twice in their last 11 games, but allowed five or more six times over the same span.
"Unfortunately you have to play the 'what if' game sometimes," Jones said. "If some of our key guys were healthy, you never know what would've happened.
While the Royals (25-23) fell short of reaching their ultimate goal and have gone the longest amount of time between VBL titles -- five years -- in the franchise's storied history, Lowery saw plenty of positives from the summer. The Royals bounced back from a 3-8 start and a pair of five-game losing skids that saw them plummet to dead last in the four-team North Division. The 11-game winning streak had Winchester challenging Front Royal for the division lead with one week left in the season.
"It was a neat group to be around, one that formed as close a bond as any I've been around," Lowery said. "It was truly a special year, even though we didn't win as many games as we would have liked."
Jones agreed, applauding his team's effort in the face of adversity and returning New Market to the post-season for the first time in two years.
"It was exciting for New Market and its fans to get to see playoff home games," Jones said. "All in all, it was a heck of a run and a great effort for our guys having to play out of position and without a day off sometimes.
"It's a real tribute to them."