By Brian Eller - firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- It didn't take long for Winchester Royals coach John Lowery Sr. to notice the potential in shortstop Cory Spangenberg. In fact, through his team's first 26 games, Lowery has a pretty good idea what the future holds for his freshman sensation.
"Oh, he's got his best baseball ahead of him, I'm sure," Lowery said. "I'm sure at some point he'll get an opportunity to play at the next level if he continues to work."
High praise for a kid who's only played a month for the Royals. But over the past few weeks, those 26 games have served as a crystal ball, an inside look into the possible future of one of the Valley League's top hitters.
"I think the key for me has been pitch selection," Spangenberg said. "I've been swinging at good pitches and getting pitches I can handle and not swinging at balls. The patience has gotten a lot better since the college season, too. That's one thing coach Lowery really stresses and he's gotten me a lot better with that."
Whatever the key has been for Spangenberg, the results have come across on the diamond. While the Royals are enjoying a solid 16-11 record midway through the season, Spangenberg leads the team in most offensive categories, and the margins are miles apart.
His .447 batting average is more than 100 points higher than the next highest for players with more than 10 at-bats. Oh, by the way, Spangenberg leads in that category, too, the only one with more than 100. His 27 runs are six more than teammate Steve Sabins and his 51 hits are nearly 20 more than Cody Gaskill's. He leads the team with a .561 slugging percentage, and his .519 on-base percentage is 133 points higher than Gaskill, who sits second at .386.
The numbers are impressive. His mental makeup and passion for the game, however, is even more so. Spangenberg is still a teenager, recently removed from his first season at Virginia Military Institute. And for a rookie enjoying the game of baseball during the dog days of summer, the Valley League isn't all about honing your skills and becoming a better ballplayer. For Spangenberg, it's a time to get to know players from around the country, each of whom love the game as much as he does.
"You're playing good competition all of the time," Spangenberg said. "You're seeing good pitching, so the better the competition you're going to face the better you're going to get, so it's just doing wonders for me."
Not that he needed much improvement from his freshman campaign at VMI. This past season, Spangenberg started all 55 games for the Keydets and led the team in runs, hits, triples, total bases, at-bats and stolen bases.
But despite the impressive season in college and the hot start to the Valley League campaign, Spangenberg can't completely escape his "freshman" habits all of the time.
On Monday night against Woodstock, Spangenberg faced a 3-1 count and an almost certain trip to first base. But as the pitcher's offering headed toward the plate, the ball began to sail up, far out of the strike zone. Spangenberg couldn't help himself. He swung the bat, nearly losing his balance as the pitch smacked the catcher's mitt for the second strike. Following another strike, the once promising at-bat had resulted in an out.
He can't hit them all.
"Sometimes he'll expand [his skills] to his detriment," Lowery said, cracking a smile. "I think he swung on that pitch and got himself to two strikes where he probably could've walked, so those are the little parts of the game that I think he's learning to understand and he'll have a greater feel for the game the higher he goes."
The little parts may still be yet to come, but the solid foundation of talent and hard work is there. And if the first half of his season with the Royals is any indication, Spangenberg's future looks pretty bright.
"It's just a great experience for me," Spangenberg said. "I feel like I've got some of the tools to become a good player and hopefully this time here will help me down the road."