Posted June 2, 2011 | comments Leave a comment

Express set to roll for inaugural VBL season

By Jeremy Stafford - jstafford@nvdaily.com

STRASBURG -- Nothing that's happened in the past few days has been unexpected; none of it has come as an unwelcome surprise.

Still, Strasburg Express manager Butch Barnes said his team's first-ever Valley Baseball League preseason has moved quite rapidly.

"It's a hundred miles an hour," Barnes said. "It's been hectic, to say the least."

Strasburg practiced on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, held batting practice Tuesday morning, played in an exhibition game at Broadway on Tuesday afternoon, and practiced early Wednesday.

Strasburg opens its season tonight with a 7 p.m. home game against Haymarket. Pregame festivities are scheduled to begin at 6:15 p.m.

Aside from the everyday on-the-field grind, Barnes and others have had to make sure the Express' equipment has come in, and that the players fall into a comfortable routine.

"It's nothing that every first-year team doesn't go through," Barnes said. "It's just making sure everything is in order."

Barnes said that, this early in the season, he's as much a father as he is a coach to some of the Express players. For many players, this summer is their first away from home. Barnes is making sure they're settling in nicely.

Former Strasburg Rams players Derek Buckley, Nick Barnes and Tim Ponn have also helped with the transition.

They've introduced players to the people of Strasburg. They've shown players where to eat. And they took their Express teammates to the Rams' Region B quarterfinal win over Buckingham on Monday.

"The faster we can get them introduced to the community, the better off we are," Butch Barnes said. "I want the community to know who they are."

Buckley was a senior when he first found out Strasburg was getting a new Valley League team. Until now, Buckley's been left to watch Woodstock River Bandits and Winchester Royals games.

"I knew the Valley League was a quality league," Buckley said, "so I knew I could get a good summer workout playing every day."

Barnes laughed when asked about Strasburg's potential area of strength: He said he hopes the Express are good at everything -- hitting, pitching and fielding.

But at least early on, while players adjust to hitting with wooden bats, Strasburg will likely rely on its pitching depth.

Barnes said Strasburg signed more pitchers and fewer position players than teams normally do. To counteract the void, many of the Express' field players are capable at multiple positions.

Buckley, for example, is listed as a pitcher but is also a proficient catcher. A rising sophomore at Shepherd, Buckley played in 21 games for the Rams and started 14. In 44 at-bats he managed 11 hits, a double and seven RBIs. He earned one win as a pitcher.

"I'm excited, I'm really looking forward to [today], to getting on the field early and playing in my first night game in a while," Buckley said. "Especially playing on Strasburg [High School's] field again.

"It will feel like homecoming."

Nick Barnes started in all 45 games at the University of Charleston and was fourth on the team with a .300 batting average. He hit 10 doubles and 25 RBIs.

Ponn, also at the University of Charleston, earned five wins as a pitcher and had a 3.12 ERA. He struck out 37 batters in 69 1/3 innings of work.

Strasburg has also signed two players from Christopher Newport, at one time the No. 1 team in Division III baseball. Rising senior Connor Madden started in all 41 games this past season, and led the Captains in four categories: Batting average (.370), runs (93), home runs (9) and RBIs (41).

Matt Verdillo, a rising junior for the Captains, appeared in three games.

Some other notable players are Ben Verlander, a pitcher from Old Dominion and younger brother of Detroit Tigers hurler Justin Verlander, and Nick Bruns, a rising sophomore from Bowling Green. Daniel Marrs, coming off a red-shirt sophomore season, is a promising right-handed pitcher from Wake Forest. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 40th round of the MLB's 2008 First-Year Player Draft.

"I think we're going to be OK," Barnes said. "We've just got to go out and execute, that's the major thing: Execute and throw strikes and throw people out.

"Time will tell. We've got some nice arms coming in, and some kids can swing it."

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