By Jeff Nations
STRASBURG -- Jordan Tarsovich is in the middle of an all-star season for the Strasburg Express, leading the league in batting and on-base percentage to make an undeniable case as the Valley Baseball League's best leadoff hitter -- or hitter, period.
Tarsovich has every right to enjoy this glowing summer in the VBL -- truth be told, he's endured his share of bad breaks and unlucky bounces to make this happen. That's a literal statement, by the way.
Start with the break -- three of them, actually. During Tarsovich's sophomore season at Virginia Military Institute, the speedy leadoff man fractured his right ankle in three places just doing what he always tries to do -- get on base, any way possible.
"It was a swinging bunt," Tarsovich said. "I tried to beat it out and lunged for first base -- can't help it, it's the way I play. I took a lunge at it and just jammed it. I had a couple fractures, my heel ... it wasn't pretty."
That injury, which came during VMI's 13th game that season, sidelined Tarsovich for the rest of the year. His rehabilitation stretched from May until September, also effectively wiping out a chance to play in a wooden-bat summer league like the VBL. One silver lining was a medical redshirt the NCAA granted Tarsovich, giving the rising senior an extra season to play for the Keydets. He'll have two more years to sharpen his skills.
When Tarsovich did return from that long layoff this past season for VMI, he immediately started making up for lost time. For much of the season, he ranked among NCAA Division I's leaders in walks before finishing with 48, setting a new school record and leading the Big South Conference. Tarsovich ended up starting all 55 games and batted .299 for the Keydets. He ranked fifth in the Big South in on-base percentage (.445), led VMI with 16 doubles and stole 18 bases despite that damaged ankle.
"I don't think it will ever fully be the same, but I'm fortunate to be blessed with some speed, anyway, so I'll make up for it," Tarsovich said.
Tarsovich has kept up that production, and then some, since arriving in Strasburg. Express manager Butch Barnes, who said a longstanding relationship with Keydets coach Marlin Ikenberry helped steer the hot-hitting outfielder to his team, has been thrilled with Tarsovich's complete game.
"What a player, and very modest about it, too," Barnes said. "He doesn't know how good he really is. He's got a lot of tools. He can run, he can hit, he can throw, he tracks balls unbelievably out there in center field. He just sees it off the bat, and this is not an easy ballpark to see baseballs in with the lights the way they are. He's a pretty special kid."
Tarsovich's ability in the field has been a plus, but what he's done at the plate has been flat-out vital for Strasburg this season. Heading into Thursday's night's game, Tarsovich leads the VBL in batting at .416 -- 40 percentage points better than anyone else -- and on-base percentage (.508).
"I take more pride in on-base percentage than I do batting average, just because I'm a leadoff hitter," Tarsovich said. "I know at school I worked my way up to about 48 walks this past season, and I'd like to get that number a little bit higher and get my strikeouts a little bit lower."
Evidently, Tarsovich has handled the switch to wood bats this summer despite almost no previous experience swinging the lumber. He's quickly become a fan, but does admit that his success has surprised him -- somewhat.
"I'm surprised, but I know I'm a good player," Tarsovich said. "I know I can hit a little bit, but I'm definitely surprised with the average staying up there."
Barnes said Tarsovich did have one weakness in his game when he arrived in Strasburg -- early in the season, he was having trouble reading pitchers on the basepaths. Barnes had an unorthodox solution for that one. He approached rival manager Bobby Rauh of the Charles Town Cannons for help. Rauh, not far removed from his own days as a base-stealing whiz as a player in the VBL, was glad to help.
"I couldn't think of anybody better," Barnes said. "And as gracious as Bobby is, and he's a good man, he spoke to Jordan when we went up there. It really helped Jordan."
Tarsovich got a bit more time to study opposing pitchers' moves this season, but that one was definitely unplanned by Barnes. Late in an eventual lopsided loss, Barnes lifted Tarsovich with the intention of giving him a bit of a break.
Now about that unlucky bounce ... as Tarsovich took in the rest of that game from the bench, a foul ball came rocketing into the dugout. The ball bounced off a wall and ricocheted into Tarsovich's eye.
"He got six stitches," Barnes said. "I was kind of kicking myself in the rear end. I said, 'I should've just left you in the game in center field with your glove on.' And he said, 'Aw, it's not your fault.' We lost him for a couple games, and that's when we started to slide a little bit. Now we're back up and running again."
During his unplanned break, Tarsovich spent time coaching first base for the Express.
"When he was over there, I said, 'Hey, this is your opportunity. Every time we get somebody on, you're going to read the pitcher just like you're on base,'" Barnes said. "And I think that helped him a little bit, too, because he wasn't really worried about getting back. He was focused on what the pitcher does."
Barnes has seen a marked improvement in Tarsovich's jumps on steal attempts. His success rate has improved, as well, to 9-of-14 on steals.
It was little surprise that Tarsovich was among the selections to the VBL's all-star squad, and continues to make a case as the league's Most Valuable Player. Brad Zebedis won the league batting title and the VBL's MVP award in 2011 for the Express, and Barnes sees some similarities in the way both approach the game.
"He's just a stand-up young man," Barnes said. "From the day he came in, he was just, 'What can I do to help the team?'
Tarsovich has done plenty, although Barnes is still hoping to schedule a day off for Tarsovich.
"I've been trying to get him a day off because when you watch him leave the ballpark, he's like a walking icepack," Barnes said. "He's still out there stealing bases, and he says he doesn't need one. But it's a long season."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>