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By Jeremy Stafford - firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- He sauntered into the batter's box and patiently took two pitches for balls. Then he stepped out of the batter's box, adjusted his belt, took a couple slow practice chops, then stepped back into the batter's box to face his last pitch as a member of the Strasburg Express.
In the midst of his seventh at-bat of Thursday's Valley Baseball League regular-season finale -- a game that was quite meaningless for Strasburg, but on which Front Royal's playoff hopes hinged -- Igor Molina had already struck out four times. He'd gotten only one hit and scored one run and stranded two base runners.
But, as the saying goes, you're only as good at your next at-bat.
And in this particular at-bat, the score was tied, 9-9, in the top of the 13th inning. The bases were loaded -- Front Royal pitcher Kyle Scallion made sure of that when he intentionally walked Ryan Hathaway and Brad Zebedis. There were two outs.
Molina took his two slow practice chops. Then he laced a single into shallow center field. Brenton Peters scored from third base and Hathaway tried to score from second, but was tagged out at the plate. Still, Strasburg (15-29) held on to end its season with a 10-9 win.
Though Molina didn't put up staggering numbers, the game was essentially his.
"He makes adjustments at the plate," Strasburg manager Butch Barnes said moments after Strasburg concluded its first season as a Valley League organization. "You can't throw sliders by him, and you can't throw curveballs by him. I don't think I've ever seen anybody throw a fastball by him.
"Bottom line there is, he can make that adjustment in a game, and he'll be all right in his later at-bats."
Molina said his slow start Thursday is typical of him. He said he also tends to start seasons slow. And coming into the Valley League about a month late, having just recovered from a broken hand, and suddenly having to adjust to swinging a lumbering wooden bat, Molina assumed his habit of starting slow would be exacerbated this summer.
As a catcher, he wasn't confident his still-brittle left hand would hold up to Valley League pitching. As a hitter, he wasn't confident his bat speed would hold up to Valley League pitching.
He'd played well in two years at the University of Charleston. After spending his high school career at Coral Springs (Fla.) as a contact hitter, Molina put on 25 pounds during his freshman and sophomore seasons at Charleston, belted seven home runs his freshman season and three home runs in his sophomore year before breaking his hand.
Although he joined the Express just prior to midseason, Molina played in both VBL All-Star games.
His eight home runs this summer ranks in the VBL's top five, and essentially did away with his trepidation that he wouldn't adjust well to hitting high-level college pitching with a wooden bat.
"I was skeptical coming in here just because, at school, we have a couple guys that can throw pretty well, but pretty much everybody on this staff can bring it," Molina said. "I guess all my questions have been answered.
"I felt comfortable at the plate this year, and I met some great guys who helped me out throughout the year. It's been a great experience."
But now the experience is over. Molina and the rest of the Express have now left the valley and returned to either their respective schools or their respective homes. Barnes said it was a hectic season, but a fun season. It was a successful season, too. Even though the Express posted the worst record in the league, the organization seemed to flourish. The fans traveled. And the players played to the very end. It seemed many of the players couldn't bear for the end to come.
"I feel like today I know myself better as a player and as a man and as an individual," Molina said. "It's been an overall great experience. I made some lifetime friends here. I can't say enough about it.
"I wish I could just redo it again because this was one of the best times in my life playing baseball."
On Thursday it seemed inconceivable that Strasburg, after going up 9-0 on Front Royal through four innings, found itself still playing baseball after 13 innings, searching for runs, searching for available players, searching for some way to end the season on a positive note.
Pitcher Nick Bruns entered the game in the bottom of the eighth as a closer and wound up putting in more work (5 1/3 innings) than any other Strasburg pitcher. Because the Express were short on players, Bruns took an at-bat in the bottom of the 11th. He earned the win when Cardinals second baseman Chris Tripplett flied out to center field in the bottom of the 13th.
"It's the 44th game of the year, we play 13 innings, and we're still out there competing," Barnes said. "One thing we did tonight, I told our guys, we were going to respect the game and compete to win."
Which is largely why Barnes maintained an unwavering faith in Molina despite the slugger's slow start. And it's why Molina maintained an unwavering faith in himself.
"One thing my dad always taught me is, you're only as good as your next at-bat," Molina said. "So I kept my mind clear, forgot about the strikeouts. You're only as good as your next pitch, anyway, so I just tried to come up clutch for my team.
"The situation presented itself to me; I'm just happy I got the job done."