Express manager counting on returnees for stability

By Jeff Nations

Butch Barnes has a plan.

As this year’s edition of the Strasburg Express begins to trickle into town by the ones and twos on Tuesday and into Wednesday, the third-year manager knows he has precious little time to put names with faces as he hurriedly tries to put together a starting lineup for Friday’s season-opening Valley Baseball League game at Charles Town, W.Va.

Barnes has a trick, though — for the first practice, he’s asked his players to all wear their college jerseys as a way to identify the players he mostly knows through their statistical updates on college websites.

There are a few Express players who can skip the whole college jersey ploy. Four players off last year’s VBL playoff squad — pitcher David Hafer, catcher Ryan Welling, first baseman Erik Armstrong and second baseman Terry McClinton — return for another go-around in Strasburg. Barnes is counting on that core group to provide some stability, especially early in the season.

“I think having guys coming back is a big help,” Barnes said. “For one thing, they know what to expect. It’s comforting for the new guys coming in to always have a few guys returning from the year before.”

More is expected of that quartet than providing tips on the best places in town to eat. Barnes said Hafer is likely the opening-night starter for the Express when they take on the Charles Town Cannons (formerly the Luray Wranglers franchise). Welling, his battery-mate at times last year, would be a natural to start at catcher, and Armstrong and McClinton manned the infield spots last year and should do so again.

A left-hander, Hafer is coming off a strong junior season at Rider University. In 25 2/3 innings, Hafer posted an ERA of 1.40 while fanning 15 batters.

“He’s been lights-out this year,” Barnes said. “He’s just been unhittable, for lack of a better word.”

Welling held down a starting job this past season at LaSalle, batting .222 with three home runs and 20 RBIs. Armstrong (.284, 1 HR, 37 RBIs) and McClinton (.302, 1 HR, 25 RBIs) are teammates at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort.

Beyond them, the rest of the roster is a bit unknown — well, not quite. Barnes has already penciled in at least one other likely starter at shortstop. Former Sherando High School standout Tre Porter, The Northern Virginia Daily’s 2012 Baseball Player of the Year, is coming off an outstanding freshman season at junior-college power Potomac State. Barnes’ biggest concern about Porter is how long he might stay, since there is a good chance the talented infielder could be a Major League Baseball draft pick.

“He’s draft eligible and he’s got a lot of tools,” Barnes said.

Barnes thinks team speed, perhaps led by Porter and VMI junior outfielder Jordan Tarsovich (.299, 2 HR, 26 RBIs, 18 stolen bases), should be a real strength for Strasburg this year.

The pitching staff will have to be sorted out, of course, as Barnes blends largely unproven Division I pitchers with more polished Division II and III hurlers. Among the DI group, Hafer, Eastern Kentucky’s Ben Gullo, LaSalle’s Austin Clark and Long Island’s Jordan Wilcox logged the most innings. That may not matter, though, as Barnes follows their college coaches’ wishes for workloads this summer. A pair of Christopher Newport junior right-handers, Adam Emerson (2.97 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 30 1/3 innings) and Austin Chrismon (1.73 ERA, 86 Ks in 78 innings) are coming off stellar collegiate seasons.

Catcher Eric Strano (.273, 0 HR, 17 RBIs) could end up starting opening night due to his familiarity with Hafer as his teammate at Rider. Yet another Rider starter, corner infielder Justin Thomas (.270, 1 HR, 23 RBIs) should see significant time. Third baseman Tyler McDonald, from Millersville University, put up the gaudiest offensive numbers in the spring college season. The junior, from nearby Chambersburg, Pa., batted .342 with a homer and 47 RBIs.

Outfielder Andrew Kubuski, from Bowling Green, also logged plenty of time during the college season. The junior hit. .240 and drove in 14 runs. Tarsovich is pegged as the season-opening leadoff man, and Armstrong should also see some time in the outfield.

Barnes has a pretty good idea of what his starting lineup will look like to begin the season, and he’s encouraged by the thought.

“We’ve got to go off the [college] stats, where they hit in a college lineup,” Barnes said. “We go off of stats from this point, but we’ll make some adjustments as we need to during the year.

“We should have a really nice 1-2 top of the order, and legitimate 3-4-5 hitters that we didn’t necessarily have in the past. We just haven’t had the power numbers that we would have liked in that 3-4-5 hole.”

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>